AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tony Romo was nervous.
It was two hours before Will Zalatoris — not only playing in his first Masters at age 24, but in the final pairing of Saturday’s third round at Augusta National — was about to tee off alongside 36-hole leader Justin Rose.
By day’s end, Zalatoris, who shot a 1-under-par 71, was tied for second place at 7-under, four shots behind leader Hideki Matsuyama entering Sunday’s final round.
“I’ve been wanting to do this my entire career, and I put myself in a pretty good spot,’’ Zalatoris said after his round. “Obviously, I’m four shots back, so I’ve got a good chance. I’ve wanted to put on a green jacket my entire career, and I’ve got a good opportunity to do it. So, let’s go do it.’’
So, you’re saying there’s a chance?
“Will’s like a little brother to me,’’ Romo told The Post by phone Saturday. “I’m obviously a little nervous rooting for him this weekend, so I’m really excited.’’
Zalatoris and Romo became friends a few years ago while playing at the same club in Texas and they play a good deal of golf together.
Romo said he was touting Zalatoris when he had a world ranking north of 2,000, telling people the kid’s going to be a star.
“I told people two years ago when he didn’t even have status on the Korn Ferry Tour, ‘I think he’s a top-20 player in the world right now,’ ’’ Romo said. “Everyone laughed at me, but I said, ‘It’s just a matter of time.’ And you’re seeing it play out pretty quickly in front of the world stage this weekend.’’
Romo knows from what he sees.
The former Cowboys star quarterback and current CBS lead NFL analyst has the unique perspective of having excelled at two different careers, not to mention the fact that he’s an accomplished enough golfer to have played in a handful of PGA Tour events on special invitation.
Romo knows an athlete who possesses an it factor w hen he sees it. And he sees it in Zalatoris, who has spent this week putting himself in contention and making it look like he’s been there and done this.
Zalatoris — who grew up in San Francisco, got his start in golf as a youth at the California Golf Club, went to college at Wake Forest and now makes his home in Texas — combines the perfect blend of confidence without being cocky.
He’s humble and respectful of both the hallowed grounds on which he’s been walking at Augusta and the star players against whom he’s competing, but he’s not intimidated any of it. Sure, he’s embracing the moment, but he’s playing like a natural-born killer.
“I promise you he believes he can win,’’ Romo said. “He’ll tell you in a very humble way that’s he’s excited to be there, but he’s ready. Will has a very strong belief in what he can do this weekend and going forward.’’
Romo said he had a conversation with Zalatoris before the Masters and told him to “be prepared for your life to change over the course of four days,’’ telling him it’s “the normal progression’’ and to “embrace it.’’
Zalatoris promised, after his round Saturday, that he’s going to “enjoy it’’ trying to chase down Matsuyama.
“He’s as genuine, nice, humble, down-to-earth as you’ll meet for what I think is someone who’s going to be a superstar,’’ Romo said. “He knows his game. He doesn’t take a back seat to anybody in the world in ball striking.’’
Zalatoris’ fire is fueled by the fact that it hasn’t come easily for him. He had crisis in confidence in college that left him wondering if golf for him as a professional. Once he turned pro, he toiled for a while, playing Monday qualifiers to try getting into tournaments.
In the past 18 months, his career has taken off and it landed at the Masters, for which he didn’t even qualify until the last minute as he sneaked into the top 50 in the world rankings just in time for the tournament deadline.
“I wanted to be here my entire life,’’ Zalatoris said. “Some people shy away from that, but I’m excited to be here. I’ve wanted to be here forever. There’s no reason to feel intimidated now. I made it to here. Obviously, the job is not done by any means, but I think standing on the first tee and hearing your name called, that’s something that every kid dreams of.
“The first tee shot, of course I was pretty nervous, but the fact that I wanted to be here my entire life actually almost frees me up.”