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Once a fan in the crowd, Zaback now in Travelers field

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Zach Zaback might be playing the ultimate in PGA Tour home games. (0:37)

Zach Zaback might be playing the ultimate in PGA Tour home games. The 23-year-old UConn grad, who has status on PGA Tour Latino America, has a family home at TPC River Highlands. Was he intimidated by a strong field? (0:37)

CROMWELL, Conn. -- Unlike some of his fellow Travelers Championship competitors, Zach Zaback didn't fly in a private jet to this week's tournament. He wasn't chauffeured to the course in a taxi service. He didn't even receive a courtesy car.

Nope, none of that was necessary -- because his mom dropped him off.

Zach grew up in nearby Farmington, and his family has owned a membership here at TPC River Highlands for the past six years. He attended the University of Connecticut, where he played in 46 career events, claimed 15 top-10 finishes and twice won the state amateur championship. Last September, with Zach embarking on a professional golf career and their other son living overseas, Andy and Doreen Zaback moved into a home behind the 18th tee and near the 13th green, which explains his uncommon journey to his first practice round this week -- and his even more unusual journey home.

"I walked back," he said with a laugh. "I just cut through someone's backyard."

To say that Zach, 23, has some history on this golf course is an understatement. His earliest memory of the tournament is sitting near the 17th tee box as a 6- or 7-year-old. Fred Funk hit a shot and his tee landed at Zach's feet. He still has it, that tee with the initials "FF" printed on it.

Since then, he's played "hundreds of rounds" on this track, but none meant as much as Thursday's opener.

One year after posting a 67 in the Monday qualifier, only to miss out in a playoff, Zach matched that number this week to make the field. His biggest events before this? He competed in the U.S. Amateur Championship three years ago and currently plays on PGA Tour LatinoAmerica, where he's made four cuts in six starts.

But none of those jangled his nerves like this one.

"I was maybe a little star-struck," he admitted. "I was sandwiched right in between Rory [McIlroy] and Jason [Day] on the [practice] green today. Jason gave me a little hello, so that was cool."

Those butterflies were still in his stomach on the first tee, but at exactly 9 a.m. ET, he stepped up and split the fairway with a perfect drive anyway.

Besides, for as nervous as Zach might have been, his father, Andy, insists there was someone even more nervous.

"Me, for sure. Without question," said the dad, who caddied for his son in the Monday qualifier. "It's always been a dream of his to play here. We're golf junkies, the whole family. We play, but we're not very good. I can't describe the feeling. It's amazing. I thought he'd have the chance to play in a pro event in a few years, but it's accelerated way beyond that. I just never thought this would happen."

As one would imagine, Zach Zaback is last in this week's field alphabetically. An opening-round 6-over 76 left him near that same position on the leaderboard, as well.

But this week is more about the experience for a local product, one whom school officials believe is the first UConn golfer to ever compete in a PGA Tour event.

"How many times do you know of, that players get to earn a spot at a tournament in their home state, on their home course? Isn't this cool?" beamed his college coach, Dave Pezzino. "I'm so excited for him. He's a coach's dream."

In front of about 50 family members and friends, Zaback carded one birdie in his first 16 holes, then a little magic finally happened.

On the 17th, that same hole where he once claimed a Fred Funk tee as a young boy, Zach's approach shot missed to the right side of the green. As he walked toward the ball, he whispered to his caddie, Paul Butler.

"Let's give these people a show," Zach told him. "This would be a good time for a chip-in."

On one of the most crowded spots on the course, in front of those family members and friends, he did just that, chipping in for another birdie -- easily the most memorable moment of a memorable day.

When he finished the round, Zach climbed the 15 steps past the practice green to the scoring trailer, signed his scorecard and gave a handful of interviews to the awaiting media contingent, all of them focused on the local-boy-makes-good angle.

At one point, he was asked how he'd get home that afternoon.

"We'll see," he said with a shrug. "I wouldn't mind walking, checking out what the rest of the guys are doing on the course."

For a guy who's been coming here his entire life, it made perfect sense.