Masters phenom Zalatoris continues rise at RBC Heritage

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Will Zalatoris won’t raise his expectations or alter his approach going forward after his stellar Masters’ debut.

Zalatoris, the slender, 24-year-old, finished second on his first trip amid the colorful azaleas and Georgia pines at Augusta National. Now, he’ll stick to the carefully honed plan he had in making a mark as a pro.

“I hate the cliche of ‘Just trust the process,’” Zalatoris said Wednesday. “But it’s gotten me to this point now and there’s no reason all of a sudden to change, ‘Oh, I should go out and win this week.’”

Zalatoris faces another new test at the RBC Heritage, where fairways are narrow and greens are small. He’ll have strong competition at Harbour Town Golf Links, led by world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, the November Masters champion, and reigning PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa, ranked fourth in the world.

Then again, Zalatoris hasn’t spent time worrying about who else will be in the field.

He finished just a stroke behind Hideki Matsuyama of Japan at the Masters. Matsuyama returned to his home country with the green jacket and doesn’t plan to return to the PGA Tour until at last mid-May.

Zalatoris, who played at Wake Forest, has steadily increased his profile since playing on the Korn Ferry Tour, golf’s Triple-A circuit.

He’s had six top 10 finishes in his last 15 events on the PGA Tour, including a tie for sixth at the U.S. Open last September. His Masters’ performance left him at 27th in the world and has some predicting his first PGA trophy soon.

“I really haven’t put expectations on myself to play well,” Zalatoris said. “I’ve just really done a good job of just doing my job and playing within myself.”

JOHNSON HOMECOMING

Johnson had hoped to duplicate his dominating fall performance at Augusta in the spring. Instead, he missed the cut and had to hang around to award the green jacket to Matsuyama on Sunday evening.

“I enjoyed being their champion for five months,” he said, smiling. “I don’t care how long it was for, it’s still cool,” he said. “I’m always going to be a Masters champion.”

Johnson, born and raised in South Carolina, has played well at Harbour Town, with 10 of his last 12 rounds here in the 60s. Yet, his best finish was a tie for 16th in 2018.

The Pete Dye design is filled with doglegs, water and hazards that make grip-it-and-rip players rethink their strategies.

“Even around here, you’ve just to drive it straight no matter what club you’re hitting,” Johnson said.

MORIKAWA ‘PEAKING’

Morikawa, 24, won golf’s first major in San Francisco last August after resuming from a COVID-19 pause. He won a World Golf Championship event at the end of February and tied for 18th at Augusta National.

“The game at Augusta felt really good, just made too many mistakes. Out there mistakes are going to happen, but I can’t be giving away shots like I did,” he said. “We’re peaking at a good time, and we’re really looking forward to kind of next few months of golf.”

Morikawa’s week had a dual purpose — on Monday, he played The Ocean Course about two hours or so up the road in Charleston where he’ll defend his PGA Championship title next month.

COVID BREAK

The tournament was postponed last April due to the coronavirus pandemic. The course, though, hosted the second PGA Tour event after the stoppage. Webb Simpson, the RBC Heritage’s defending champion, finished with a course record 22-under 262 to capture that June event.

Simpson believes the return to April will also bring a return to swirling winds and tricky conditions that typically keep scores in check at this event.

Zalatoris is ready for the challenge, no matter the conditions. He soaked in every moment at the Masters and knows, whatever the future holds, he’ll cherish that major performance. “I still wish I could put into words how much fun I’ve had,” he said.

He hopes to have even more fun this week at Harbour Town.

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