A little before 1 p.m. on Thursday, Apr. 6, Will Zalatoris felt something pop in his back.

That feeling is never a good thing, let alone on the practice range at Augusta National. He was in the midst of his warm-up session leading up to the first round of the 2023 Masters.

Zalatoris was scheduled to play the opening two rounds with defending U.S. Open champion Matthew Fitzpatrick and two-time major champion Collin Morikawa. His success throughout 2022, which included two runner-up finishes at majors, earned him a spot in this marquee pairing.

But this dream scenario for a young golfer quickly turned into a nightmare.

His ailing back forced him to withdraw less than 30 minutes before his tee time.

Forty-eight hours later, Zalatoris was lying on a hospital bed, recovering from a successful microdiscectomy.

Like that, his 2023 season was over.

“It’s been a patience game,” Zalatoris said Tuesday.

Will Zalatoris, The Masters

Will Zalatoris hits a tee shot during a practice round at the 2023 Masters. He later withdrew.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

“It’s been a grind. I had a lot of really good advice from guys that have had to go through the same thing, and all of them said take your time; no one’s ever come back from an injury taking too long.”

Indeed, the former Wake Forest Demon Deacon took ample time recovering from his back surgery.

Initially, Zalatoris planned on playing some FedEx Cup Fall events. He had targeted the RSM Classic for his return but then decided to wait until the Hero World Challenge.

So this week, Zalatoris makes his long-awaited return to competitive golf in the Bahamas.

“I really started hitting balls a couple of months ago,” Zalatoris noted.

“Really each week has just progressively gotten a little bit better. I was on a pretty strict ball count, a strict amount of time of how much I could practice. Had to spend a lot of time doing rehab—basically six days a week. I know way more about the anatomy now than I think I ever really wanted to, but I feel really good right now.”

The rehabilitation process Zalatoris endured was a difficult one—not too indifferent from the recovery Tiger Woods faced in 2015 after his first microdiscectomy.

Funny enough, Zalatoris and Woods had the same surgeon.

And like Woods, Zalatoris had to change his rotation in his swing to conform to his new back.

If he persisted with his old rotation, his back would continue to give him issues. Of course, his old patterns led to his withdrawal from the Masters in the first place.

“It was more of not changing who I am as a golfer and my golf swing, but just refining things to where they’re a little bit simpler,” Zalatoris reasoned.

“So I had always had a big reverse ‘C’ in my golf swing. Well, the reality is, now I’m way more rotational and way more horizontal with what I do as opposed to being more up and down… I have worked on keeping that left heel on the ground. Having the left heel up at impact, yeah, maybe you might get a couple more miles an hour ball speed, but the part I’ve kind of enjoyed about it is I’m driving it straighter even though it might be 10 yards shorter.”

Will Zalatoris, The Masters

Will Zalatoris plays a shot on the 11th hole at Augusta National during a practice round prior to the 2023 Masters.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Having his left heel up at impact did not help his back, and over time, it gradually dissipated a disc in his lower spine.

But these issues did not come out of the blue. It had been a persistent issue for him, stemming from The Open Championship a few years ago.

“It’s something that I’ve battled for a couple of years,” Zalatoris admitted.

“I hurt my back for the first time like four or five years ago. But, you know, being a golfer, being young and wiry, and swinging really hard, [I thought] I pulled a muscle. [So I thought] okay, take a couple of weeks off. [But] the surgery that I had actually was a huge benefit in the sense that it took all that stuff out.”

The 27-year-old took well more than a couple of weeks off, and he is thankful that he did.

The surgery paid off, despite it being a long summer for Zalatoris. At least he was productive during that time, working through rehab and finishing his coursework at Wake Forest. He even improved his resume and created a LinkedIn account.

Now we shall see if he can return to his top form on the course, contending in major championships, and being a top-10 player in the world.

Jack Milko is a golf staff writer for SB Nation’s Playing Through. You can follow him on Twitter @jack_milko for more golf coverage. Be sure to check out @_PlayingThrough too.

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By David

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