As the PGA Tour makes its way to the TPC River Highlands this week, the players will be ranked in many categories – No. 1 in driving distance, No. 1 in greens in regulation, No. 1 in sand saves, and so on – and names like McIlroy, Spieth, Day, and Watson will be mentioned.
But there is little doubt which name will be No. 1 if they rank the field in course knowledge -- Zaback.
Former UConn golf captain Zach Zaback fired a 5-under par 67 Monday at Ellington Ridge Country Club in the Travelers Championship Qualifier to earn one of four open spots in the field for the Travelers, which begins Thursday in Cromwell.
Not only has Zaback played TPC “hundreds” of times, by his own estimation, not only is he a member there, but he literally lives on the course, just off the 14th hole. Talk about your home field advantage.
Well,… temper that a bit by the fact that Zaback is, after all, challenging the best golfers in the world.
“That’s one thing I’ve got going for me against all these guys,” Zaback said about playing on his home course. “It’s a dream come true and I’m super excited. I was telling one of my buddies the other day that I think I would be more excited to play in the Travelers than like, the U.S. Open, just because I’ve been there so many times, it’s got that hometown feel, and there’ll probably be some people there supporting me. I’m sure I’ll be a little nervous, but they will be good nerves.”
Zaback, who had one of the finest four-year careers in UConn history before graduation in 2016, also caught a break in the Travelers Championship Pre-Qualifier and Qualifier, which were both held at Ellington Ridge, one of UConn’s home courses, and a course very familiar to Zaback. He won both the 2012 and the 2013 Connecticut Cup at the course.
“I love that place,” he said. “It just felt more comfortable there, not having look at a lot of numbers (distances) and stuff.”
Zaback twice proved how comfortable he was. Last Thursday at the Pre-Qualifier, 147 golfers were going after the top 25 spots plus ties and Zaback tied with Sunny Kim of Palm Beach, Fla., for the low round of the day with a 5-under 67.
Monday, under a lot more pressure in the Qualifier, with 54 golfers vying for the four spots, Zaback duplicated his 67 (34-33=67), deadlocking Chase Seiffert (Panama City, Fla.), Neil Johnson (River Fall, Wis.) and Tom Hoge (Fort Worth, Texas) for low round. He had five birdies and 13 pars, and played the Par 5 holes in 3-under. Starting on Hole No. 10 with a par, Zaback birdied Nos. 11, 12, and 13 to put himself in contention.
“I played really solid,” Zaback said. “I got off to a good start, then had some good par saves … hit it well, putted well. I thought if I got to 6-under, that was probably safe and 5-under might be a playoff. I finished late, but there were still a few groups behind me. It was nerve-wracking, but about 30 minutes later we knew for sure and it felt great.”
“It was only a matter of time with Zach and I’m very excited for him,” said UConn coach Dave Pezzino. “The best part is, he earned it, and now he gets the opportunity to play a course he played a lot in college. It’ll sure be a fun walk to work for him over the next few days. I’m very proud of him.”
Zaback, 23, who turned professional in the fall of 2016, has status on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica and has played in Columbia, Argentina, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, making four of six cuts.
Originally from Farmington before moving to Cromwell, Zaback played 46 events in his four years at UConn, averaging 73.9 strokes per round for 132 rounds, the lowest career average in UConn history. He won three tournaments, had 15 Top 10 and 24 Top 20 finishes. He shot 41 rounds of par or better, including 16 sub-70 rounds.
Zaback is a two-time Connecticut State Amateur champion (2014, 2016) and also won the 2016 Russell C. Palmer Cup. While in college he was a three-time Division I PING All-Northeast Region pick, a two-time all-conference selection, an All-New England pick and the 2014 CSGA Player of the Year.
And Thursday, just a few short strides away from home, Zaback’s career will take a huge step forward.