Pereira’s nerves, Zalatoris’ putting and those pesky rocks: 5 factors that could decide the PGA Championship | Golf News and Tour Information
TULSA – That’s the ranking of a hardcore golf fan. The casual weekend watcher may not be familiar with either of the members of Sunday’s final PGA Championship squad: Chilean rookie Mito Pereira and soft-spoken Englishman Matt Fitzpatrick. But PGA Tour Live junkies have long identified both players as overdue for the kind of breakout performance they’re delivering this week.
Pereira started hot, withstood a brutal streak and finished hot for a one-under 69 and a three-stroke lead with 18 holes to play. It has an inside track on the Wanamaker Trophy, but with similar gusty (albeit a bit warmer) conditions expected for Sunday, and Southern Hills continues to firm up as the week progresses, there are a dozen players with a legitimate chance of the second major of the year. Here are five things we think will go a long way in determining who leaves Tulsa with the trophy.
The nerves of Mito Pereira
At some point on Saturday, Mito Pereira looked at a major championship standings and saw himself with a five-stroke lead. He then put the car in reverse and pressed the throttle, making four bogeys in five holes, to play his final eight holes at three under par to rebuild a solid cushion. However, Sunday will be the most difficult round of the young Chilean’s life. The good news is that he has won a lot recently, earning the very rare three-win Korn Ferry Tour promotion last summer. The bad news is that these were Korn Ferry events, and this is a major championship.
How he controls his nerves will determine his chances. With that in mind, a shot from Saturday jumps off the page – Pereira was the only player on the course not to go get the green on the 17th par-4 driveable. He made par on the hole, but the decision to take an iron off the tee didn’t exactly excuse a player in attack mode. Neither did his comments after the round.
“I don’t know yet,” he said of how he will prepare for the big day. “I’ll just try to disconnect a bit, I guess. I was quite nervous today. I was in the final couple. I’m just going to try to rest, do what I do every day, and keep it simple.
A regular departure on Sunday is vital.
RELATED: Bubbs Watson flirts with another PGA major
Bunkers, bunkers, bunkers
They were discussed this week. Namely, the pebbly sand inside, which is unlike the powdery white bunkers players are used to on the PGA Tour. The guys were frustrated with inconsistent strikes and balls that came out hot and unspinned. With the course continuing to dry out despite the rain – there’s been enough wind to blow the moisture out – and no rough surfaces in the bunkers, they’re sure to catch plenty of balls on Sunday. A miss from the bunker could absolutely ruin a tournament, and players will want to avoid them at all costs.
Zalatoris putting shorts
Entering this week, Zalatoris was statistically the second best tee-to-green player on the PGA Tour and the 185th best putter. This is the story about him: if only he could punch the putts. In his year-plus on tour, Zalatoris has established himself as one of the best ball forwards out there, but his putt, especially his short putt, is a glaring weakness that is often hard to watch.
What made his first two days on the Southern Hills greens so encouraging. Zalatoris looked rock solid and led the pack in shots gained going two rounds, but the Demons emerged on a nine-to-four front on Saturday. He struggled with a block and looked rather shaky on the courts; his putter often seems to snag, sometimes multiple times, before he goes through the ball. He’s still doing a lot, but you wonder how such an inconsistent move will hold up with a major championship on the line. He’ll probably have to do a few in the six- to 10-foot range to have a chance tomorrow.
One thing works in his favor: he was able to tap into the brains of several great champions.
“I was lucky to grow up around Lanny Wadkins and Lee Trevino and obviously those guys are great champions, which is fun to even think about Scottie and Jordan as well,” Zalatoris said. “Stick to my game. I have nothing to lose tomorrow.
The first five holes of Justin Thomas
Of the guys on the fringes of contention, Justin Thomas would seem the most likely candidate to mount a charge. Thomas is second on the PGA Tour in birdie average (5.11), and the eye test confirms it: no one in the game seems to get as hot, as quickly as JT. He caught fire in last year’s Players Championship to win the title, and as he enters seven strokes behind on Sunday, he is only four behind second place. A stumble from Pereira would bring him right back into the tournament.
To do this, he will have to take advantage of the first five holes, including the first very conducive to birdies and one of the two par 5s of Southern Hills. He would ideally have two or three under by the time he entered the brutally difficult 6th, and pars at 6, 7 and 8 would see him gain ground on the court. He’s not beside himself, but a slow start would piss him off.
The 17th driveable hole (?)
Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s head of layout, chose to move the tees on the 17 par-4 far enough to make it accessible to all players on the course. It’s not yet known if they’ll do the same for the final round, but you have to think they will – rollable par 4s on the stretch from a major lead to iconic moments, like Collin Morikawa’s eagle on the 70th hole of the 2020 PGA Championship at Harding Park. 18 is a beast and a half, and having 17 gives players one last big birdie opportunity before facing the finisher seems like a no-brainer.
If they take the roadway, this hole could prove decisive. An eagle 2 is entirely possible, and a bad shot off the tee could eventually find the water short and lead to a big number. Here’s hoping we’ll be treated to some major drama late on Sunday.
MORE PGA CHAMPIONSHIPS COVERAGE FROM GOLF DIGEST
PGA 101—Everything you need to know about this year’s event in Southern Hills
The Top 100 Players Competing in Southern Hills, Ranked
Spectator’s Guide: How to Watch the PGA Championship on TV and Stream
Our 13 best bets to win the PGA 2022 at Southern Hills
The curious journey of the 2022 PGA Championship from Trump National to Oklahoma
‘Nothing short of amazing’: An oral history of Phil Mickelson’s unlikely 2021 PGA victory
Why Southern Hills won’t play anything like the tree-lined brute of the past
The 2007 PGA at Southern Hills, the hottest major in memory, still has players sweating
(Not) too short to fail – why pros miss gimmie putts
Why fans tend to forgive and forget with Phil Mickelson