Mito Pereira takes a three-shot lead to Sunday at the PGA Championship. But he has yet to win a PGA Tour event.
Michael Madrid/USA Today
TULSA, Okla. — This much is certain about the 104th PGA Championship. If Frankie Valli had shown up, the tournament would have experienced all four seasons.
Hot Friday temperatures in the low 90s gave way to overnight rain, Saturday morning drizzle and chilly conditions in the mid-50s that caused fans to bundle up and Rickie Fowler to wear oversized mittens you normally see on the Green Bay Packers bench in January.
You know what else is certain about this PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club, which has reminded us just how sneaky good it really is?
Nothing. This PGA Championship is absolutely wild, crazy and unpredictable. (I knew you’d say that. So scratch unpredictable.)
Exhibit A: A guy from Chile you’ve never heard of — Mito Pereira — is your leader. Mucho gusto! (Nice to meet you!) He’s either a 54-hole fluke or a future star. (Go with the latter. This guy loves to mash it off the tee and play aggressively. He could have folded Saturday but after four mid-round bogeys, he birdied three of the last six and made a clutch save at the 16th. Pass the Chile Strong wristband, please.)
Exhibit 2: A former U.S. Amateur champion from England you probably don’t remember and who’s never won on the PGA Tour — Matt Fitzpatrick — finished birdie-birdie to materialize out of seemingly nowhere and vault into second place. He and Pereira are the only players to shoot under par in all three rounds. By jove, old chap, delightful.
Exhibit III: Will Zalatoris, a former Masters runner-up who seems to make a run only at major championships, is at it again despite a five-bogey day that dropped him out of the lead but left him two back. He’s tougher than Naugahyde. The guy who holed everything on the greens Friday watched his repaired putting stroke come unglued on the front, yet he pulled it together. Z-Man could well turn into The Man.
Exhibit wut?: First-round leader Rory McIlroy, seemingly back in full flight, faded away like an old soldier for a second straight round. Most of Saturday’s roars were not for Rors … Justin Thomas, who looked like the man to beat after his stellar second-round 67 in high wind, racked up six bogeys including an inexcusable one at the reachable par-5 13th and dropped seven shots back. The ex-PGA champ still isn’t out of it but sheesh, he was on the ropes all day… Stewart Cink celebrated his 49th birthday and charged with a 1-over-par 71 — that’s right, a 71 was charging in this misshaped third round — into a tie for seventh … Two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson straggled home with four back-nine bogeys when bunkers kept jumping in front of his ball … Cameron Young, a former Wake Forest University star who also is relatively unknown, powered his way into the mix by driving the green at the par-4 17th hole and draining a long eagle putt to slide into fourth. He hit a 4-wood from 297 yards, in case you want to feel inferior … Max Homa, who won the recent Wells Fargo Championship, inched into the top 10. You can probably get details on his all-star Twitter account.
You get the picture. If you were watching the PGA Championship at home, it was hard to tell which part was the golf telecast and which part was that insurance commercial the battered guy who plays Mayhem and plows his stationary bicycle through a glass patio door. Southern Hills is winning the war, it seems. That’s the way major championships should be.
“It’s just as important to win the attitude contest as it is to win the driving and irons and chipping and putting contests,” said Cink.
Wild and crazy? What kind of coincidence gets wilder and crazier than Cink being in contention again at Southern Hills? He suffered a near-miss at the 2001 U.S. Open here when he missed a short putt of 18 inches or less that, it turned out, would’ve gotten him into a Monday playoff.
“This feels like a comfortable place for me to play but I have one memory, that’s missing a short putt on the last hole,” said Cink, who earned his only major title when he beat Tom Watson in the 2009 British Open at Turnberry. “It took me a while to get over and it’s almost 20 years down the road. It’s a distant memory now and I’ve got that monkey off my back, thankfully.”
Sunday’s finale will focus on Pereira. He’s 27, he played college golf for one year at Texas Tech, won three Korn Ferry Tour events to earn a battlefield promotion to the PGA Tour and was part of that wild multi-player playoff (that included Rory McIlroy and Collin Morikawa) for the Olympic bronze medal eventually won by Taiwan’s C.T. Pan.
Pereira is from Santiago, Chile, which is also where PGA Tour winner Joaquin Niemann is from. Chile has about 50 golf courses and a few thousand recreational players, yet has two players in the top 25 in this PGA. Niemann is 23rd. What are the odds of Chile producing two world-class players … and possibly a PGA champion?
The most impressive thing Pereira did was vault pass third-round leader Zalatoris into the lead right away, hang on to it despite a mid-round slip and then finish strong. He shot 69 after opening with 68-64 and is three shots up on Fitzpatrick.
“I was playing really good and suddenly made four bogeys in five holes,” Pereira said. “It was a tough place to be at the moment. But I just found myself. I was really happy how I ended up, the birdie on 18 was a bonus. I’m just happy to be in this position.”
Let’s check the ol’ Victory Meter on the leaders. Pereira (-9), 0 PGA tour wins. Fitzpatrick (-6), 0 PGA Tour wins but 7 DP World Tour victories. Zalatoris (-6), 0 wins. Young (-5), 0 wins. Abraham Ancer (-4), 1 win. Seamus Power (-3), 1 win.
That’s six shots between Pereira and sixth place and only two wins. Of course, Cink, Thomas and Watson are seven back and Webb Simpson, a former U.S. Open champ, is eight back. Eight may seem like too much but if Pereira blows up, Simpson is only five shots out of second.
Forecasting this PGA finish is like a board game beginner playing Clue. You can’t count anyone out. (Except Professor Plum. All he does is read and smoke his pipe — not the lead pipe — in the Library.)
Zalatoris is in the mix to the finish. “I’ll just stick to my game, I know I’m playing some really good golf,” he said. “I’ve got nothing to lose tomorrow. Mito played an incredible round today. You could argue that was as good as JT’s (Justin Thomas’) 67 in the morning yesterday. You’ve got to go out and get it, everybody’s got to go out and earn it.”
Southern Hills will make sure of that. Its stern test means that the winner, whoever it is, will have to make like Frankie Valli and … walk like a man.
> Tiger Withdraws from PGA Championship After Third-Round 79> Tiger Woods Balloons to 79 on Saturday in Unfavorable Weather> Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy Shoot Disappointing 74s, Putting PGA Nearly Out of Reach> In Dreary, Cold Conditions, Webb Simpson Fires Saturday 65> Jack Nicklaus is Being Sued by the Nicklaus Companies> ESPN Anchor Sage Steele Thanks Medical Personnel After Accident> What to Watch in Round 4
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Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980, following the tours to 125 men’s major championships, 14 Ryder Cups and one sweet roundtrip flight on the late Concorde. He is likely the only active golf writer who covered Tiger Woods during his first pro victory, in Las Vegas in 1997, and his 81st, in Augusta.