Will Zalatoris returns at Hero World Challenge after back surgery, ‘nightmare’ scenario at Augusta National

After about a year’s worth of back injuries kept him off the course, Will Zalatoris is finally back.

Zalatoris, who withdrew from the Masters in April and underwent surgery just days later, is set to compete in this week’s Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.

“It’s been a patience game,” he said Tuesday at Albany in the Bahamas. “It’s been a grind.”

Zalatoris missed several months during the 2022 season with two herniated discs in his back, which marked just his latest back issues in recent years. But it was at Augusta National where things fell apart. Just before his first round tee time at the Masters, Zalatoris withdrew from the first major championship of the season.

“[It’s] kind of a golfer’s worst nightmare is feeling your back giving out on the driving range at Augusta 30 minutes before your tee time,” Zalatoris said.

Two days later, he was undergoing surgery — the same surgery that Tiger Woods once underwent on his back — that knocked him out of the rest of the season.

“It’s a big swing of emotions,” he said, thinking back to April. “I think the first five, six weeks was probably the hardest.”

Will Zalatoris withdrew from the Masters in April just 30 minutes before his tee time, and had to undergo back surgery two days later.

Will Zalatoris withdrew from the Masters in April just 30 minutes before his tee time, and had to undergo back surgery two days later. (David Cannon/Getty Images) (David Cannon via Getty Images)

Since then, Zalatoris had to slowly rebuild his back strength. It started with simply walking up and down the stairs at his house, and things progressed from there. It wasn’t until a few months ago that he finally hit the range again, though he had to do so on a very strict ball count. The build-up, he said, was incredibly slow.

But with all that spare time Zalatoris made the most of it. He actually went back to Wake Forest to finish up his degree — it was interesting taking summer elective classes with 18- and 19-year-olds, he said — and traveled a bit with his family.

Zalatoris has one career win on the PGA Tour at the 2022 FedEx St. Jude Championship, though he’d been in contention plenty of times at the majors and other big tournaments. He finished fourth at the Genesis Invitational just a few months before his surgery. He fell in a playoff at the PGA Championship in 2022, and finished tied for second at the U.S. Open and went T6 at the Masters that season. That backed up his runner-up finish at the Masters the year before.

Now looking back at that stretch of golf, Zalatoris realizes that he was just ignoring his back. He was too impatient.

“I had been on kind of cruise control for two years of just this steady progression, being in contention at majors, I think not really giving myself the time to fully kind of appreciate kind of where I was physically,” Zalatoris said. “I still had the same speed and everything, and it’s fun to see now week by week from the first day I started hitting drivers to where I am now.”

Though this week doesn’t mean much, considering it’s a limited field and an unofficial event, Zalatoris knows he’s going to learn plenty about his game and his health once he makes it through a full 72 holes.

“I think this week is a lot of almost kind of R&D with, let’s see how I feel going into the last round physically,” Zalatoris said. “You know, this week I’m going to be able to take a lot away from it, you know, regardless of how I play … It’s more of if I put 72 holes together pain free and we’re able to take a lot of things of what I can work on over the next month before I start up for the next year. You know, either way it’s a positive.”

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