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Will Zalatoris playing through back injury at WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Last weekend Will Zalatoris would have been 50-50 if asked to tee it up this week at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. He didn’t even play a practice round at TPC Southwind, deciding instead to listen to his body.

Remember last month when he chopped out of knee-high hay at Royal St. George’s, tweaked his back and was forced to withdraw from The Open? Turns out that hack-out exacerbated what was already a mild ailment in his lower back. Each step felt as though he was being stabbed in the back of the left leg. After flying home from England, the 24-year-old worked extensively with trainer Damon Goddard but otherwise didn’t do much of anything for two weeks.

“I’m not a guy that likes to sit still; having two weeks to do absolutely nothing was absolutely awful,” he said Friday. “I hated every minute of it, and my fiancée can attest to that. By the second week, she was about ready to ship me off and go on vacation by herself.”

Full-field scores from the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational

Zalatoris said he has both structural and muscular issues with a disk in his lower back. Though he’s one of the leanest players on Tour – he called himself a stick figure on Friday – he has never suffered a back injury during the course of his career and prides himself on his fitness.

“I’ve never had anything happen like that in one golf swing,” he said. “It’s part of being 24, maybe a little dumb and fearless, and I didn’t think I was going to hurt myself. It was a freak deal.”

Zalatoris said the injury typically requires a month-long recovery – and that’s convenient as he’s currently in an unusual position. He might be the 30th-ranked player in the world but he’s ineligible for the upcoming FedExCup playoffs because he’s not a full-fledged Tour member. (With 1,184 points, he would be 28th in the FedExCup standings.) Unless he wins here in Memphis – he’s five shots off the halfway lead – or next week at the Wyndham Championship, the lucrative playoffs will go on without him.

“Yeah, it’s a weird deal, but at the same time if you asked me what my life goal was when I was 7, we didn’t have the FedExCup. My life goal was to win a major,” he said. “It’s something I would like to be a part of. I know I can play with the best guys in the world. I’m trying my best every single week to finally get that first win.” 

Having the postseason off could be a blessing considering his current aches and pains, but it’d also deprive him of a three-week showcase for U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker. Zalatoris is 20th in the standings despite limited playing opportunities and has flashed in nearly all of the game’s biggest events, including a solo second at the Masters.

That’s why Zalatoris said he was considering flying to Europe over the next month if he needs a couple of starts to show the American team leadership that he’s in form. One of his sponsors, Omega, hosts a European Tour event in Switzerland at the end of the month, and the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA, is set for Sept. 9-12 – two weeks before the Ryder Cup in Wisconsin. 

Zalatoris might not yet be eligible for the PGA Tour’s postseason, but he currently ranks ninth in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai and has plenty of incentive to play the next few months.

“I’ve got to listen to my body,” he said. “Trust me, I want to go.”