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Eyes on a New Prize

January 4, 2020—There is talent and there is timing. In professional golf it usually takes both.

The Korn Ferry Tour will have a decidedly Connecticut feel to it this year because two local stars, John VanDerLaan and Zach Zaback, peaked at just the right time at the tour’s final qualifying stage this winter at Orange County National near Orlando.

VanDerLaan and Zaback will both play next week in The Bahama The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay, Jan. 12-15. For VanDerLaan it will be the first of 12 guaranteed Korn Ferry starts, for Zaback the first of eight. Joining them is Theo Humphrey, the Greenwich and former Vanderbilt star, who also earned eight early exemptions.

VanDerLaan had an amazing qualifying run. In the Stage Two qualifier at Southern Hills in Brooksville, Fla., he shot 23 under par over 72 holes, eight shots ahead of the nearest qualifier! In Orlando in the Final Stage, he finished 18 under par, tied seventh.

It was a different path for Zaback, the 2014 and 2016 Connecticut Amateur Champion. After a so-so (for him) year on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada in 2019, where he had one top-ten finish against three in 2018, he shot 65-68 in the final two rounds of Stage Two at Plantation Reserve in Florida to advance to Orlando. There, he birdied the 72nd hole at Orange County to reach the magic Top 40 and gain exemption into the first eight Korn Ferry events. Zaback’s birdie on the final hole at Orange County National was bittersweet for some. It guaranteed him a spot at -12, but eliminated a dozen players at -11.

“At first it didn’t really register that a birdie would bump all those guys out,” he said. “I didn’t want to take the chance that the number would move… I really wanted to make birdie no matter what.”

Humphrey, the former Vanderbilt No. 1, was 13 under in Orlando and will also be exempt for the first Korn Ferry “reshuffle” of rankings, usually eight events.

“You can play awfully well at these levels and not see success,” said Zaback, who played in one Korn Ferry event two years ago as a Monday qualifier. “You learn you really have to take it deep and it becomes harder and harder. I didn’t have as strong a year in Canada as the year before, but looking back it may have been a good thing that I had to compete in those early [qualifying] stages and in that second stage I needed a couple good rounds at the end. Zaback, a former UConn standout, says work on his competitive mindset with UConn assistant coach John Wortmann has helped. “I’m able to hold rounds together where in the past if my swing wasn’t there I might let the round kind of fall apart. I can have a bad day and still post a decent score.”

Two other Connecticut players, David Pastore of Greenwich, and Alex Beach of Stamford, had very strong years—Beach winning both PGA Professional and PGA Assistants tournaments—but finished out of the Top 40. They’ll have conditional status on the Korn Ferry Tour, meaning, among other things, they get preferred positioning on reshuffles and a pass into Monday qualifying for events. (Most of those who make the Final Stage will play in Korn Ferry events in 2020). Pastore, whose seventh-place finish on the Mackenzie Order of Merit allowed him to move directly to the Final Stage, may have suffered from competitive rust in Orlando.

On the other hand, the continuous qualifying that VanDerLaan and Zaback endured probably helped. VanDerLaan, who won the NCAA Division II Individual Championship and led his Florida Southern team to victory in 2017 as well, said he felt confident and comfortable throughout the three qualifying stages.

“I really don’t mind being in that [do-or-die] position,” he said. “I have been used to it, really, from college, where I was expected to win. So the pressure is familiar. I’ve played against these guys before” (as Division II Player of the Year he won a spot in the 2018 Barbasol Championship on the PGA Tour and made the cut. A few weeks later he won the Connecticut Open at New Haven Country Club, smashing the championship scoring record at 16 under par). Zaback also saw the qualifiers as a positive. “I kept playing under pressure all winter and that probably was a good thing.”

The two continue to set their sights on the big tour. “It feels very satisfying to make it this far,” said Zaback. “The Canadian and Latin American tours are great, but you can’t stay there forever. It feels good to take the next step.” A Top 25 finish on the money list will take them to PGA Tour. “My goal obviously is to win the money list,” said VanDerLaan. “And I hope a year from now I’ve done that and I’ll be on the PGA Tour.”

VanDerLaan and Zaback will take their next step together. Both are now based in Florida and they will travel and room together for at least those first eight events. “We know one another and we’re comfortable with one another, so it’s a new experience and that will make it a bit more normal,” said Zaback. “It’s great to have that,” says VanDerLaan. “And hey, it’s pretty expensive otherwise.”