‘Next up on the tee, Happy Gilmore’s caddie’, aka Will Zalatoris. A bit of social media banter between actor Adam Sandler and golfer Zalatoris proved to be one of the sideshows during the recent Masters, given the 24-year-old’s likeness to Happy Gilmore’s caddie at The Waterbury Open in the 1996 comedy.
‘Have fun today, young man. Mr Gilmore is watching you and is very proud,’ Sandler tweeted before the final round of The Masters where Zalatoris sat in a group tied for second, four shots behind 54-hole leader Hideki Matsuyama.
The American golfer saw the funny side. ‘If you’re ever in need of a caddie again, let me know. I’ll be better this time. I’m always available for you, Mr Gilmore,’ he tweeted after the tournament where he finished alone in second place, a final round of 70 leaving him one shot short of Matsuyama.
However, now that the comedic side of Zalatoris’ game is over, we can focus on the serious side. His runner-up position at The Masters lifted him from 45th in the world to 27th, which in itself is a remarkable rise after he ended 2018 ranked 2 006th, 2019 in 672nd spot and the end of a Covid-19 ruined year at 59th.
A product of the Korn Ferry Tour, his sole victory as a professional was at last year’s KFT Colorado Championship at Heron Lakes. His elevated world ranking saw him reach the final field of 64 and qualify for the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, where he was eliminated at the group stages after losing to Jason Kokrak, beating South Africa’s Dylan Frittelli and tieing with Tony Finau. It could be argued that he was unlucky to go out, but he continued his progress at The Masters.
Now Zalatoris heads to the second men’s Major of the year, The PGA Championship at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, in good order.
But, he, along with the rest of the field, will find a severe test of ability and nerves. Winds with big gusts can wreak havoc and quickly bring the world’s best to their knees. Back in 2012, the last time Kiawah hosted The PGA Championship, a 23-year-old Rory McIlroy made the most of the European-style links course and conditions, obliterating his peers by a record eight strokes. It was peak young Rory. Shaggy brown hair, cheeky grin, quiet confidence.
Sounds a bit like Zalatoris?
The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is also always changing, evolving. This year, the fairways are tighter, and the rough has grown. It will test everything a ‘bomber’ like Bryson DeChambeau has in his arsenal.
Statistics after The Masters showed that DeChambeau was hitting fewer than 60% of fairways off the tee, which can cause a lot of trouble at Kiawah Island. His inability to find the fairway off the tee has resulted in the US Open champion finishing outside the top 40 in his last two starts on the PGA Tour, which included finishing in 46th at Augusta.
‘It’s one of the best settings for a golf event,’ said PGA Championship tournament director Ryan Ogle. ‘I don’t know if you can find a better setting to host a tournament, not only for the course and the competition and the drama it will present, but also the way it’s going to be represented on our broadcast to 164 countries and half a billion households by putting a bright light on the Lowcountry and on the state of South Carolina … it checks all the boxes.’
The PGA Championship — which for decades has been the final Major of the year in August — was due to move to May last year under a reworked PGA Tour schedule. But it was postponed until August because of the coronavirus pandemic.
‘I think May is going to be a great change from 2012,’ Ogle said. ‘You see drier weather, which is great from our spectator plans and the spectator experience. You see more wind, which is good for the competition, and is really going to test the players. The wind is the defence on this course. Without wind you’re going to see low scores. With wind you’re going to see high scores. It’s also mild temperatures. It’s really hot in August. So the climate, the wind and the dryness of May is a great combination for the championship.’
Defending champion Collin Morikawa played the course for the first time in April with an ESPN film crew and some media. He experienced the blustery conditions that can make a beast of Pete Dye’s oceanside masterpiece that hosted the 1991 Ryder Cup, dubbed the ‘War on the Shore’.
‘The wind picked up the last two hours, and those final few holes, even though it was downwind, do not play easy,’ Morikawa said. ‘I’m sure the greens are going to be a little firmer, a little faster. It’s not going to be easy to stop shots, whether it’s with a wedge or a 4-iron.’
The greens have paspalum grass, but the putting surfaces have been overseeded for the winter and Kiawah resort president Roger Warren, a past PGA of America president, said they will be ‘fuller, smoother and faster’ in May than they would be in August. The rough can be deeper with winter rye grass, but won’t be as gnarly as it could be in the summer with warm-weather Bermuda the predominant grass.
The course has been lengthened since 2012 with three new back tees extending it to 7 876 yards. ‘I was hitting a bunch of 6-, 5-, 4-irons into greens, even had a couple 5-woods,’ Morikawa said. ‘Yeah, you really can’t get lazy on any of these shots. You can’t take anything for granted because it’ll bite you in the butt for sure.’
A full field will come together for the Major, but all the players will be only confirmed a week before the event. However, when you look at the 156 golfers, you’ll be awestruck by some of the superstars and might miss recognising some who are considered to be ‘making up the numbers’. But, you won’t fail to miss Will Zalatoris, whose name (and face) is on the rise at this stage for other reasons than his golfing ability. That is all about to change.