While Will Zalatoris was lighting it up on the PGA Tour a season ago, one of his former Wake Forest roommates, Cameron Young, was watching in awe like the rest of us. Young, who earned his PGA Tour card at the end of the summer, used to beat Zalatoris at school regularly, which had to be a nice little confidence booster as he watched him nearly win a green jacket.
“I wanted to beat him as bad as anybody did because he was the best of all of us,” Young said of Zalatoris. “Especially his first year at college. And my first qualifier I think he beat me by 40. I don’t think I’ll forget that one, but hopefully I will. I kept it a little closer this time.”
Through two rounds of the Sanderson Farms, Young has kept the margin much closer than 40 shots. After rounds of 67 and 65, he sits at 12 under, one off Zalatoris’ 13-under mark, which he shares with Nick Watney.
This weekend, the Demon Deacon duo will battle for their respective maiden PGA Tour victories, a cruel twist of fate for Zalatoris, who has knocked on the door of a win a handful of times already. Young, meanwhile, is making just his fifth career start on the PGA Tour. He’s a pretty fast learner, something Zalatoris knows all too well.
“We had a kid come in for a recruiting trip and at Old Town where we play 1, 2 and 3 ends right by — or 3 ends right by the first tee,” said Zalatoris, telling a story about Young from their college days. “And so he caught up with us on 4. And he made six 3s in a row taking his shoes out of his, literally changing the shoes out of his trunk of his car, hopped out, eagled the first, chipped in on the second for birdie, made a mistake and made par on 5 and then I think he chipped in one more time and made a couple 20-footers. So he made six 3s in a row. And that’s just Cam. He’s not the most fiery emotional guy out there, but it’s like he just didn’t hit a single ball warming up, didn’t hit a single putt, made six 3s and like, ‘Okay, let’s go grab dinner.’ I’m like, ‘okay.'”
Zalatoris is not exactly a wily veteran, but he has seemingly entered “earn” a win territory. How Cameron Young it would be of Cameron Young to swoop in and out with the victory instead.
‘I had to ask myself some tough questions’
Longtime golf fans who hear the name Nick Watney likely remember the Watney of the late 2000s and early 2010s, when he won five times and rose all the way to No. 9 in the Official World Golf Rankings. Those new to the sport might not be able to pick Nick Watney out of an obscure tour pro lineup.
It’s certainly been an interesting decade for Watney, now all the way down at 660th in the OWGR. He’s not won since the 2012 Northern Trust at Bethpage Black, which happened so long ago it was still called The Barclays. While there have been flashes of brilliance, injuries and overall poor form have seen him fade from the PGA Tour picture. At one point last season, one of the leanest of his career, Watney began questioning if he still “had it.”
“There were some low times that kind of, I asked myself some really tough questions,” he said. “You know, do I want to keep playing, do I enjoy this, and I really do.”
There’s plenty for Watney to enjoy on Friday evening, as he now is tied at the top with Zalatoris following rounds of 65 and 66. The putter has been a big factor, so much so that one has to wonder if it’s sustainable for two more rounds. That’s the least of the 40-year-old’s concerns right now, though.
“I feel like I’m building. I’m really kind of hungry to play and to be nervous, and I don’t really feel like I’m in competition with any other person. I’m kind of, I’m in competition with myself to see if I can handle golf, championship golf. So I’m really excited and I feel like I’m building.
“I obviously enjoy playing like this and I’ll enjoy tomorrow no matter what happens. So, it’s all positives.”
Mississippi native putting on a show for the home crowd
With fellow rookies Young and Sahith Theegala shining, another rookie, Hayden Buckley, likely flew a little under the radar for those following the Sanderson from home this week. On site, though, there was nothing under the radar about Buckley’s second-round 65 at the Country Club of Jackson. The Mississippi native had a rather large contingent of fans hooting and hollering for every birdie.
“I know I had a couple guys that they were yelling a little too loud,” said Buckley. “But it’s just so nice to see so many people supporting me and see what I’ve been doing for the last few years. I moved away, I went off to college in Missouri and didn’t see a lot of friends, I kind of lost connection with a lot of friends and some family and it’s nice to see all my hard work paying off and for them to see it pay off as well.”
Like Young, Buckley had a strong 2020-’21 season on the Korn Ferry Tour, winning once, finishing runner-up once and amassing five top 10s and 12 top 25s. Also like Young, he missed his first cut of the season at the Fortinet Championship in Napa. They are now tied for fourth at 12 under.
“Every start I get I need to take advantage of,” Buckley said. “And obviously the play at Napa wasn’t what I wanted to start with, but knowing that I got this tournament right behind it I knew we were in a good spot. I knew if I hit the ball well, I played this course so many times, obviously I was a different kid five or six years ago when I played it in high school and amateur golf, but I know the course so well and I know a lot of guys probably know it well too, but I grew up on it, I grew up playing it.
“For the state of Mississippi you want to make them proud and you want to have somebody in the mix out there. So I’m glad it’s me, I’m hoping some other guys can join me as well, but it’s just what, it’s what you dream of. You dream of playing on the highest level of golf, the PGA Tour, in your home state, right in your backyard. So we’re having a good time to say the least.”