AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s always difficult to properly measure these things, of course, because it’s sports and there are so many variables involved.
But Will Zalatoris might be a name in golf you’ll be getting quite familiar with in the coming years — perhaps even by sundown Sunday at Augusta National, where the 24-year-old playing in his first Masters stands five shots out of Justin Rose’s first-round lead after shooting a 2-under 70.
Years ago, I recall a colleague from a Florida newspaper writing about Ernie Els when no one had ever heard of him.
Els, then a lanky young South African, had been invited by Arnold Palmer to his invitational tournament at Bay Hill and, before Els had accomplished anything of significance on the golf course, the writer wrote about the presence and it factor Els exuded.
This is, in no way to project Zalatoris having the same kind of Hall of Fame career that Els has had, but the kid does have a presence about him. He looks, sounds and acts like he belongs despite being a mere neophyte on the professional golf scene.
He’s confident, but not cocky, which is the perfect blend for an athlete.
“Kind of the joke that I’ve been saying with my family is if I’m stupid enough to think I can play here, then I’m stupid enough to think I can win it,’’ Zalatoris said.
Despite being skinnier than a signpost (6-foot-2, 165 pounds), Zalatoris smashes the golf ball.
In the beauty that makes golf unique to all other pro sports, Zalatoris on Thursday was paired with Bernhard Langer, who’s 39 years older than he is and played in his first Masters 14 years before Zalatoris was born.
“I hit 5-iron on a par-3 [sixth hole] and he hit 9-iron, so he’s four irons longer than the same hole,’’ Langer said. “It’s just hard to imagine.’’
Given where Zalatoris was about a year-and-a-half ago, it’s hard to imagine he’s at Augusta playing this week.
“Seventeen months ago, I was [ranked] 2,000-plus in the world,’’ he said. “I missed Korn Ferry Q-school two years ago and basically was sitting down with my coaches, not even two years ago, talking about playing mini-tour stuff.’’
Now he’s in early contention to win the Masters in his first try, attempting to become the first Masters rookie to win a green jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller, the only man to do it, did it in 1979.
And to think: Zalatoris was in a mad scramble to qualify for the Masters, barely getting into the field by getting himself inside the top 50 in the world rankings, which he did at No. 45.
“Trust me, it’s not like I didn’t have that cutoff [date] circled by any means,’’ Zalatoris said. “Of course, you want to play a Masters. But it’s just part of the journey, and good golf takes care of a lot of things.’’
Zalatoris, despite not having won yet, has been playing good golf for a while now. This season alone, he has five top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, including a tie for sixth in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
He’s been experiencing a lot of firsts on this wild ride of his, but, he said of his first Masters: “This one is different.’’
“You dream about [this] for your entire life,’’ Zalatoris said. “If anything, in a weird way it kind of takes a little bit of pressure off because it’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve wanted to do this my entire life [and] now I’m doing it.’ ’’
And he looks unfazed while doing it, which often is the sign of young player destined for stardom.
Zalatoris, who lives in Texas, has tried to emulate Jordan Spieth, who he calls “like an older brother’’ to him.
“He won everything growing up, and I’ve admired him since I’ve known him,’’ Zalatoris said. “I’ve known that he’s been this special player since I was 10 or 11 years old. Whatever he accomplished, that raised the bar for me.’’
Zalatoris played Augusta once before this week — as a sophomore in college when a Wake Forest donor who’s a member invited some of the players for a visit. Zalatoris doesn’t remember what he shot that day, but he does remember screwing up his order for breakfast in the clubhouse before the round.
“The waiter asked, ‘Sir, what would you like for breakfast? And I said, ‘I’ll have a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, a side of fruit and coffee,’ ’’ Zalatoris recalled. “Then I thought, ‘You idiot, you order that at McDonalds. You’re at Augusta National and you’re going to order the same thing you order at McDonalds?’
“It was the best breakfast sandwich I ever had.’’
If Zalatoris wins week, he becomes a member of Augusta National for life, and he can have whatever he wants for breakfast whenever he wants it.