Tiger talks: Zalatoris leans on advice from Woods in return from back surgery to play the Masters

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — One year to the day after he was lying on an operating table, a surgeon hovering over his ailing back offering at least some hope of relief, Will Zalatoris walked onto the practice range at Augusta National just as the sun was just beginning to rise.

There were no patrons on the grounds yet. No players yet on the course to begin their preparations for the Masters.

In fact, the only person besides his caddie, Joel Stock, anywhere in sight happened to be one of the few players in the world who could understand what the 27-year-old Zalatoris had gone through the previous 12 months: Tiger Woods.

The five-time Masters champion has undergone the same procedure as Zalatoris, called a microdiscectomy, several times over the years. Its purpose is to remove part or all of a damaged disc in the lower spine, which in many cases will press on the spinal nerves and cause pain or numbness that extends down the legs.

So there they were, Zalatoris and Woods, all but alone on the practice range. The two had spent time at a charity function last year, and Woods had been offering him some advice about how to come back from the surgery, but Zalatoris was still having a hard time mustering up the courage to ask him to play a practice round together.

It was Woods who asked simply, “You playing?” And soon they were off, headed down the par-4 10th hole toward Amen Corner.

“It’s always special to be here,” Zalatoris said later Monday, after he and Woods had spent about three hours chattering their way around the back nine, “but obviously given the last year that I’ve had, it was a very special day.”

In truth, the winding road back to Augusta National has taken far more than a year.

Zalatoris once appeared to be destined for stardom coming out of Wake Forest, earning the PGA Tour’s rookie of the year award in 2021, after he had shot a final-round 70 in his Masters debut to finish one stroke back of winner Hideki Matsuyama.

The success came from what has been described as a “hyperdynamic” swing, which also put immense strain on the rail-thin Zalatoris’ back.

Later that summer, he was playing in the British Open at Royal St. George’s when he hit into the thick fescue, that ankle-high grass so familiar to links-style courses. Zalatoris reared back, left heel lifting from the ground, and took a mighty cut as he tried to gouge the ball out — and in retrospect, he believes that was the shot that began his path to the operating table.

He wound up with two herniated discs, and there were times that the pain was almost unbearable.

“Probably should’ve gotten it that fall,” Zalatoris said of the microdiscectomy, “but you don’t do that to a 26-year old.”

Instead, Dr. Michael Duffy at the Texas Back Institute sided with other specialists who reviewed the MRIs and believed the most prudent course of treatment would be shots to relieve the inflammation, followed by rest and rehab.

It seemed to be working, too, until Zalatoris got to the driving range at Augusta National a year ago.

He was warming up, just 30 minutes before his opening round, when “I felt my back jar,” he recalled Monday, “and specifically I knew exactly what it was with the two discs. I started feeling the symptoms go down my legs.”

Zalatoris wanted to play that day, perhaps gut through the pain one more time. But he knew his back had been bothering him for a while, so he made the difficult decision to withdraw. He flew home, had an MRI the following day and by 7 a.m. Saturday, when the third round was getting ready to begin at the Masters, Zalatoris was preparing for surgery.

“That’s a quick turnaround,” he said, “to hop straight into surgery.”

The surgery may have happened quickly, but the recovery did not. Zalatoris couldn’t swing a club for months, instead whiling away the hours by watching family and friends play back at Maridoe Golf Club in Dallas.

It was an exercise in patience and a test of faith.

It was around that time that Woods entered the picture, offering Zalatoris advice on how to get back on the course.

“The patience game is really hard,” he explained. “Obviously, (Woods) had gone through way more than what I had gone through. Having the same surgeons, the same team, you know — just having the conversation, I guess, about, ‘Hey, after this amount of time, how do you feel?’ … It’s just been a lot of understanding the process, and realizing that even if a doctor tells you 12 weeks, we’re trying to win and compete at the highest level, so it’s technically longer.”

Zalatoris returned to play the Hero World Challenge last November, but it wasn’t until Torrey Pines in January that he knew he was on the right track. He was in contention on the weekend there, then finished second at Riviera and fourth at Bay Hill.

He was playing like he had years ago. And he was doing it without the pain.

“My mom actually reminded me this is one year to the day from the surgery,” he said with a smile, “so kind of a fun day to kind of come back and play, and play nine holes with Tiger this morning, a guy who has really helped me a lot.”

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf

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