TULSA, Okla. – After several of golf’s biggest stars failed to make up for moving day at the PGA Championship on Saturday, six players are in good shape to win their first major championship at Southern Hills Country Club.
Chilean Mito Pereira moved to 9 under after the third round and is the first player since John Daly in 1991 to hold the absolute 54-hole lead on his PGA Championship debut. In each of the previous seven major championships at Southern Hills, the winner had at least a share of the 54-hole lead.
Pereira is looking to become the first PGA Tour rookie to win a major since Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship. He will be looking to join world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and Collin Morikawa in their 20s who recently won majors.
“It’s like that,” Pereira said. “If you play golf really well during the week, you’re going to win. It doesn’t matter [if it’s] your first time or your 10th time, if you play really, really well, you’re going to have a chance.”
Four of the contenders – Pereira, Will Zalatoris, Cameron Young and Matt Fitzpatrick – have never even won on the PGA Tour. One of them would become the first player since Martin Kaymer in 2010 and only the fifth in the last 50 years to claim his first victory on the Tour at the PGA Championship. Abraham Ancer and Seamus Power, two other players within striking distance, have only one victory each.
Here’s a look at the top contenders for the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday:
Pereira of Chile came in at 10 under at one point during the third round but then bugged four of the five holes. He didn’t panic and bounced back with back-to-back birdies on numbers 13 and 14. He added another with a 27-footer on number 18.
Playing only his second major, Pereira leads the pack in strokes won: putting (2,344). He also did just about everything else well over the first 54 holes. He ranks in the top 25 of shots won: tee to green (third), approach (10th), around the green (24th) and off the tee (tie for 12th).
Pereira is ranked 100th in the world. Since the Official World Golf Rankings became official in 1986, only two players ranked 100th or higher have held a 54-hole lead of 3 strokes or more. One of them was John Daly, who had a 3-stroke lead and won the 1991 PGA Championship. The other was Jean Van de Velde, who had a 5-stroke advantage heading into the final round of the Open in 1999. Van de Velde, of course, had a famous meltdown on the 18th and lost in the playoffs to Paul Lawrie.
One of the big questions of the weekend was whether Zalatoris’ putter would stay hot. He entered the PGA Championship tied for 185th in strokes gained: putting. He led the field on the first two laps, but ran into trouble at the start of the third.
After missing just two putts inside 10 feet on the first 36 holes, he missed four inside 6 feet while carding a 4 of 39 on the first nine on Saturday. He did better on the back nine, including making a 35-footer for a birdie on the par-5 13th.
Zalatoris is one of the best ball forwards in the world and has been scrambling exceptionally well this week, especially off the sand, which has confused many players in Southern Hills. If he can hit more fairways from the tee and his putter heats up again, he will be tough to beat on Sunday.
“I was lucky to grow up around Lanny Wadkins and Lee Trevino and obviously those guys are great champions, which is funny even to think about. [his friends] scottie [Scheffler] and Jordan [Spieth], too,” Zalatoris said. “Stay true to my game. I have nothing to lose [Sunday]. I know I play very good golf, and hopefully that will ultimately bring the score down.”
Fitzpatrick of England is 17th in the Official World Golf Ranking. He is the highest ranked player without a win on the PGA Tour. The former North West star has won the DP World Tour seven times, including the British Masters and the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai twice.
Fitzpatrick, 27, didn’t have a great record in the majors heading into the week. He has had just one top 10 in 27 starts – a tie for seventh place at the 2016 Masters. He was expected to be a contender for next month’s US Open at Brookline Country Club , Massachusetts, where he won the US Amateur in 2013. He is the only Englishman in the last 110 years to win this event.
Fitzpatrick said his earlier struggles in the majors were likely due to his game not being as good as his world ranking.
“I talked to my coaches at length about my major record,” Fitzpatrick said. “You know, I always said to them, ‘I just want to give myself a chance because I supported myself at the end of the day. I feel like every time I had a chance in Europe I played very well. Even here, when I had a chance to win, if you look closely, I didn’t have a lot of a chance to win. But when I did, I played well. I haven’t lost it.”
Monday marks the one year anniversary of Young’s first victory on the Korn Ferry Tour. He would win again the following week, becoming only the 10th player to win consecutive events in KFT history. On Sunday, he will be in the penultimate group of a major championship, trying to erase a 4-stroke deficit.
The PGA Tour rookie already had three finishers, four top 10s and seven top 25s in his first 16 starts. He drives the ball as well as anyone on tour. After 54 holes, he leads the PGA Championship pack in strokes gained: off the tee (2.088) and is second in driving distance (320.6 yards).
Winning the PGA Championship would likely be very special for Young, whose father, David, is a longtime pro at Sleepy Hollow Country Club, located on the Hudson River in upstate New York.
“It’s because of the PGA that he got the job he’s had for the past few years,” Young said. “Without that, at Sleepy Hollow I don’t start playing at 4 or earlier. I don’t have the access I had growing up. I started playing in junior PGA events when I I was 9, 8, something like that.
“For me, I’ve had so much access to golf through this organization. So to kind of have the chance to go from local PGA Juniors, from PGA National Juniors to the Junior Ryder Cup, to even play in a PGA Championship , is really cool for me. It kind of accompanied me throughout my journey.
Hopefully (and badly for favorites)
Ancer was born in Texas and played at the University of Oklahoma, so he knows how to handle the swirling winds. In 54 holes, he hit 32 of 42 fairways and 33 of 54 greens. He also sailed well on the bentgrass greens of Southern Hills, as he ranks eighth in strokes gained: putting (4.758).
Ancer, who won the 2021 FedEx St. Jude Invitational, finished eighth at the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in South Carolina. It’s his only top 10 finish in 12 major starts.
Rory McIlroy was the Irishman everyone expected to charge on Saturday. Instead, it was Power, making his second big start. He birdied on four of the last seven holes and shot 3-under 67.
Power captured the 2021 Barbasol Championship for his first PGA Tour victory. He is sixth in Strokes Gained: Total (10.955) and seventh in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green (9.076) this week. Power, 35, played at East Tennessee State.
The long strokes
Thomas, who was trying to add a second Wanamaker Trophy to his only major win at the 2017 PGA Championship, had his chances to make up for it on Saturday. But he had three bogeys on each side, with just two birdies, and shot 4 of 74. He will have to go low on Sunday to catch up.
A day after tying the PGA Championship scoring record with a 7-under 63, Watson posted a 3-over 73. The two-time Masters champion was 1 under up front and moved up to second. But then he had four bogeys on his back, three of them in the last four holes.
“I would like to be a little closer to the lead,” Watson said. “I missed a few short putts in the stretch. [On Friday]I did them all, and [Saturday] I missed them on the back nine.”
Cink, who turned 49 on Saturday, said he was inspired by what Phil Mickelson did last year at Kiawah Island, when Mickelson won the PGA Championship and became golf’s oldest major champion in 50 years.
“It blows the ceiling of what we thought was impossible before, really,” Cink said. “Phil is his own guy, of course, and he’s one of the best the game has ever seen. But the fact that at his age he could not only compete, but finish it and win, coupled with the fact that I know that I’ve recently had some wins on the PGA Tour, it really gives me confidence that I can go out there and compete in a tournament like this.”
Cink is 7 moves behind, but anything can happen in the last round of a major. He ranks third in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee (4.488) and has hit 34 of 42 fairways this week. He’s averaging 314.3 yards from the tee.
“I feel physically as capable as ever, if not more so,” Cink said. “I have the highest speed I’ve ever had. I hit the ball as far or farther than I’ve ever hit it, and power is a big issue in this game, especially on a course like this one. I don’t miss one at all in that department.”