TULSA, Okla. — Mito Pereira skidded out of control just like so many other contenders in the wind and cold of Southern Hills. He got back on course at just the right time Saturday in the PGA Championship.
Pereira steadied himself with three birdies over the last six holes, the final one from just outside 25 feet for a 1-under 69. That gave the 27-year-old from Chile a 3-shot lead over Matt Fitzpatrick and Will Zalatoris.
At stake for the 27-year-old Pereira is a chance to become the first PGA Tour rookie to win a major since Keegan Bradley in the 2011 PGA Championship.
“I was playing really good and suddenly I made four bogeys in five holes. It was a tough place to be at that moment,” he said. “But just found myself from 13 on. Those holes are pretty tough. So really happy how I ended up playing. The birdie on 18 was a bonus.
“Just happy to be in this position.”
There were missed opportunities for so many others on a rough day featuring a wind out of the north that made Southern Hills play entirely different.
Former PGA champion Justin Thomas went 12 holes without a birdie, and then he gave it back with a bogey on the closing hole for a 74. Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson looked shaky as ever on the greens, making three bogeys over his last four holes for a 73. They went from the cusp of contention to 7 shots behind.
Rory McIlroy had a six-hole stretch around the turn that he played in 6 over — and that even included a birdie — for a 74 to fall 9 shots back.
Zalatoris had his problems, too. He dropped 4 shots in the opening seven holes and went from a 1-shot lead to a 5-shot deficit until he crawled his way back into the game.
“I was pretty frustrated with the start but I would rather have a frustrating start and good finish. It’s good momentum heading into tomorrow,” Zalatoris said.
Pereira, the top player on the PGA Tour’s developmental circuit last year, was at 9-under 201. He will be in the final group of his first PGA Championship — and only his second major — with Fitzpatrick, who birdied his last two holes for a 67 to quietly sneak into contention.
Zalatoris will be in the penultimate group with Cameron Young, the son of a PGA professional, who charged into the mix by driving the 296-yard 17th hole and making a 25-foot eagle. He wound up with a 67 and was 4 shots behind.
What the leading four players have in common is inexperience at the highest level. None has won a major. None has even won on the PGA Tour, the toughest circuit in golf, although Fitzpatrick is the No. 17 player in the world, with seven titles on the European tour.
Pereira wasn’t immune from a slide. He became the first player to reach 10 under for the championship with a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-5 sixth, and he stretched the lead to 5 shots when Zalatoris made another bogey.
But then the Chilean took bogey on the par-3 eighth, chunked an approach from the fairway on the ninth and made bogey, had a wedge spin off the front of the green at No. 10 and into the bunker for bogey, and went over the 12th green for a fourth bogey in five holes.
Zalatoris briefly caught him with a 35-foot birdie putt on the par-5 13th. That only lasted as long as it took Pereira to match birdies from 18 feet, and the Chilean answered with a daring shot over the edge of a bunker to 6 feet for birdie on the par-3 14th.
Only 16 players remained under par at Southern Hills, a list that included Webb Simpson. On Friday, he had to save par from a bunker on his final hole to make the cut on the number. In a tie for 64th at the start of the third round, Simpson shot a 65 and moved into a tie for 10th.
He was 8 shots back, seemingly too far to catch Pereira, but so little is known about how he will react Sunday to the pressure of trying to win a major.