Will Zalatoris was generally an afterthought when he drove onto the grounds of Augusta National last spring to compete in his first Masters.

That won’t be the case in April when Zalatoris again wanders across the hills and dales of Augusta, golf weapons in hand.

Last year, Zalatoris became the flavor of the week at Augusta. After putting himself in contention with rounds of 70 and 68, he dropped in a pair of birdies on the back nine Sunday to challenge for the win. He finished a shot behind winner Hideki Matsuyama and was the only player to shoot under par (70-68-71-70) in all four rounds.

During the opening round, he wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by fan traffic. But the gallery following the skinny blonde bomber grew along with his victory chances on the closing nine on Sunday. 

With his Augusta passport officially stamped after such a grand “almost” last year, Zalatoris, a now-popular player with a Wake Forest University history, is likely to be among the most closely watched players this April.

And he might be dressed a bit more spiffily. His 2021 Masters check: $1.2 million.

Entering this year’s tournament, Zalatoris said he’ll carry memories of the 2021 run but that every player realizes it’s a new day and a new four-round challenge.

“I’m sure probably every day since driving out of Magnolia Lane I’ve thought about it in some fashion,” he said. “I’m going to go back and get a few practice rounds in before, go see some of the changes that they made.

“I’m very excited to get back, but, at the same time, everyone starts at even par this year. So, as much as I want to go out and try to do one shot better than I did – or I guess two shots better than I did – last year, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and keep learning on that golf course.”

Since it’s only his second Masters, he’ll still be figuring the angles and best approaches. “The local knowledge of that place, with guys having yardage books for 30 years, adding in more and more information, you’ve just got to keep learning,” he said.

Zalatoris, 25, said he has settled into a weekly pattern of trying to improve his game with each round as opposed to overreaching.

“I thought last year I really forced myself to play better,” he said. “This year I’ve done a much better job of staying patient and trying to get better. Every week is just trying to get better with my golf game – any aspect of it.

“If I keep doing the day-to-day stuff like I have been and keep asking questions of how can I get better, I know I’ll win. The first win will come, and I know that if I keep putting myself in that position, the more comfortable I’ll be.”

Zalatoris had eight top-10 finishes last year. He often plays with fellow pros Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth and said watching how they react in certain situations is good schoolwork for him.

“Any time Jordan’s inside of 100 yards, I’m watching,” he said. “I want to see how he does things. It’s the same thing with Scottie. Both of those guys are some of the best players inside of a hundred yards.”

Mike Hembree

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist who has covered a variety of sports for numerous publications and websites, including USA Today, Fox Sports, TV Guide and The Greenville (S.C.) News. He has written 14 books and has won numerous writing awards at the national, regional and state levels. He is a seven-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.