Look Ahead — 2023 Athlete of the Year: Will Zalatoris looks for ‘major’ growth in 3rd PGA season

Wake Forest alumnus Will Zalatoris will look to get over the hump in 2023 and win his first major title. (Mark Humphrey / AP Photo)

The biggest backhanded compliment in golf is to be deemed “the best player to never win a major.” Right now, that dishonor probably belongs to either Xander Schauffele or Rickie Fowler, who have a combined five second-place finishes in majors without a win.

Will Zalatoris is hoping to never enter that conversation.

The Wake Forest alumnus was runner-up at the 2021 Masters and followed that up with second-place finishes at both the U.S. Open and PGA Championships last year.

His time is coming — and soon. That’s why we’re predicting Zalatoris will be North State Journal’s Athlete of the Year in 2023.

To do it, he will need to break through on one of golf’s biggest stages.

Zalatoris finally got his first PGA Tour win last season, beating Sepp Straka on the third playoff hole of the St. Jude Championship just two days before his 26th birthday.

“It’s kind of hard to say ‘about time’ when you’re in your second year on Tour, but about time,” Zalatoris said. “Considering all the close finishes that I’ve had this year, to finally pull it off means a lot.”

In the PGA Championships earlier in the year, Zalatoris lost a three-hole playoff to Justin Thomas. Then at the U.S. Open, the California native came up short in the final round against Mark Fitzpatrick. Those two podium finishes joined his runner-up finish to Hideki Matsuyama at the 2021 Masters in Zalatoris’ rapidly expanding “close but no cigar” trophy case.

The win at St. Jude’s partially released the pressure valve, but now all eyes will be on whether or not Zalatoris can get over the hump at a major.

He ranked in the top 15 on tour in several statistical categories, from eighth in greens in regulation and ninth in birdies average to 13th in driving distance and 10th in scoring average.

Putting is where Zalatoris has struggled, ranking 175th in 4-to-8-foot putts, 161st inside 10 feet and 172nd from 10 to 15 feet.

His troubles on the green date back to his time at Wake Forest, where he was ACC Player of the Year in 2017, and continue to be what critics focus on — just google “Zalatoris” and “putting” — when he falls short.

And Zalatoris has heard the grumbles. His aforementioned breakthrough win came after he made a 10-foot putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff, and he mimicked Steph Curry — a fellow athlete with ties to the state — with a “What are they gonna say now?!” when he drained the shot.

He has been out since August with a back injury but found time in mid-December to marry longtime girlfriend and fellow Wake alumna Caitlin Sellers.

He’s due to make his return Jan. 5-8 at the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Maui. But things won’t really get real for Zalatoris until the first week in April at Augusta National. With so many defections to LIV Golf, he will have less competition than perhaps he should.

But a win in one of golf’s Big Four will take him from “best without a major” territory into the realm of “best in the world.”