A+ for Z: Zalatoris among the game’s most consistent

December 2, 2020
Justin Ray

The 2017 U.S. Walker Cup team was not short on star power.

The American side featured the reigning PGA Champion (Collin Morikawa), reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year (Scottie Scheffler), and a powerful two-time PGA Tour winner (Cameron Champ). Add to that, a former number one amateur in the world (Doug Ghim), Haskins Award winner (Norman Xiong), and statistically, one of the best putters in professional golf today (Maverick McNealy).

And yet, the hottest player in golf right now among that team isn’t any of those names. It’s Will Zalatoris.

Across the Korn Ferry and PGA Tours, Zalatoris has been an incredible model of consistency. He has eleven top-ten finishes across both circuits since the pandemic hiatus ended back in May, and 13 in total for 2020. That is the most top-ten finishes worldwide of any player in professional golf this year. Four players – Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Mikael Lindberg are tied for second, with eleven apiece.

It goes even beyond tournament finishes, however. Zalatoris has been in the top-ten following 61.9% of the rounds he has played around the world this year, and in the top-20 after 81% of his rounds. Both percentages are the best of anyone in men’s professional golf, worldwide, in 2020. DJ ranks second in both statistics, at 61.1% and 72.2%, respectively.

There are 459 players with at least 60 rounds played in official, OWGR-sanctioned events around the world in 2020. Of that group, Zalatoris has the second-best scoring average at 68.61. Only Webb Simpson (68.58) ranks higher. Once again, Zalatoris is just ahead of Dustin Johnson (68.77), who sits in third.

Zalatoris has risen more than 600 spots in the World Ranking this year, and doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. A breakthrough PGA Tour victory could be coming – and quickly. He’s in the field this week at the Mayakoba Classic.

KNOW THE COURSE

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El Camaleon played as the sixth-shortest course on the scorecard all last season on the PGA Tour. Even with that statistic in mind, the winners at this tournament have been staggeringly short off the tee: ten of the 13 past champions here finished that season ranked outside the top-100 in driving distance. Five of them were ranked outside the top-150, including the first two to win – Fred Funk in 2007 and Brian Gay in 2008 – who both were among the five shortest players on Tour those years.

This won’t be a week where a player can get off to a mistake-riddled start and expect to come back to win. No player has ever made more than three bogeys in a round at El Camaleon and gone on to win that week. The 13 winners at Mayakoba have averaged 5.2 bogeys or worse for the entire week – the fourth-lowest average among PGA Tour events since 2007. Only the John Deere Classic, RSM Classic and Sentry Tournament of Champions have yielded lower averages.

KEY PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

– Even after Masters champion Dustin Johnson withdrew from the event, this is the strongest field in the history of the Mayakoba Classic, doling out 46 World Ranking points to the champion. The ‘strength of field’ rating, a metric that the OWGR uses to measure field strength, sits between this year’s Honda Classic and Sony Open in Hawaii. World number three Justin Thomas is a big reason for that, making his first appearance in this event in six years.

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Thomas leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained tee to green since the PGA Tour season restart in May. He continued to build momentum at Augusta National, improving his finish (fourth place) for the fourth consecutive year. At The Masters, Thomas ranked third in the field in strokes gained approach, behind only Danny Willett and Abraham Ancer. JT has finished no worse than 12th in any of his last five starts, and surely would like to finish 2020 with a victory.

Rickie Fowler is in a precarious spot as 2020 wraps up: at 49th in the World Ranking, Rickie is at risk of falling out of the coveted top-50 for the first time since 2014. The top-50 has even more significance to Fowler this December: he isn’t yet qualified for the 2021 Masters, and players 50th or better on New Year’s Eve earn an invitation to the first (scheduled) major of the year.

Since the season restarted in May, Fowler is ranked 90th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained total (among the 166 players with at least 30 measured rounds in that span). He’s 76th in strokes gained tee-to-green in that stretch. In 2019-2020, he finished 112th on Tour in greens in regulation, his worst position in that statistic in eight years.

A return to Mayakoba could spark some positive play. In two starts in this event, he’s finished second (2017) and T-16th (2018). Fowler is a combined 32-under-par in those eight rounds.

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– Had he been in the field, Russell Henley would have been a trendy long shot pick at last month’s Masters. Since the pandemic hiatus ended, Henley has surged from outside 200th in the World Ranking to 55th. He leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained approach per round in that span, and ranks third in strokes gained tee-to-green. Henley has missed only one cut since the end of June and has racked up five top-ten finishes during that stretch. He’s currently sixth on the PGA Tour in scoring average on the young 2020-21 season.

– Speaking of, the two co-leaders so far this season in cumulative par four score to par (32-under apiece) are Henley and Peter Malnati. The latter would fit the profile for winners at Mayakoba over the years – strong putting (fourth on Tour in strokes gained this season) and not particularly reliant on distance (ranked 177th, about three yards behind the PGA Tour average). This will be Malnati’s seventh career start in this event; his best finish is a tie for tenth in 2015.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

This week is Dustin Johnson’s 106th career week as the world’s number one player, tying Rory McIlroy for third on the all-time list. If DJ holds the number one spot every week until Christmas 2031, he will tie Tiger Woods’ record of 683 weeks in the top spot.