TULSA, Okla. – Mito Pereira skidded out of control, as did so many other contenders in the wind and cold of the Southern Hills. He got back on track at the right time on Saturday in the PGA Championship.
Pereira stabilized with three birdies over the last six holes, the last just outside 25 feet for a 1 under 69. That gave the 27-year-old Chilean a three-stroke lead over Matt Fitzpatrick and Will Zalatoris .
At stake for Pereira, 27, is a chance to become the first PGA Tour rookie to win a major tournament since Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship.
“I was playing really well and all of a sudden I made four bogeys in five holes. It was a tough place to be at that time,” he said. “But I found myself starting on the 13th. These holes are pretty tough. I’m really happy with the way I ended up playing. The birdie on the 18th was a bonus.
“Just happy to be in this position.”
There were missed opportunities for so many others on a tough day with a northerly wind that made Southern Hills feel completely different.
Former PGA champion Justin Thomas went 12 holes without a birdie, then he gave it back with a bogey on the last 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 point of contention to seven strokes behind.
Rory McIlroy had a six-hole streak around the round he played 6 over – and it even included a birdie – for a 74 to fall nine strokes back.
Zalatoris also had his problems. He dropped four strokes in the first seven holes and went from a one stroke lead to a five stroke deficit until he found his way back into the match.
“I was quite frustrated with the start, but I’d rather have a frustrating start and a good finish. That’s good momentum for tomorrow,” Zalatoris said.
Pereira, the best player on the PGA Tour development circuit last year, was 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 the contention.
Zalatoris will be in the second-to-last group with Cameron Young, the son of a PGA Pro, who charged into the mix by driving the 296-yard 17th hole and making a 25-foot eagle. He finished with a 67 and was four strokes behind.
What the top four players have in common is inexperience at the highest level. None won a major. None have even won on the PGA Tour, golf’s toughest tour, although Fitzpatrick is the 17th player in the world with seven European Tour titles.
Pereira was not immune to a slip. 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 extended the lead to five strokes when Zalatoris made another bogey.
But then the Chilean took a bogey on the par-3 eighth, cut an approach from the fairway on the ninth and bogeyed, turned a corner across the front of the green at #10 and into the bogey bunker, and went over the 12th green for a fourth bogey in five holes.
Zalatoris caught it briefly with a 35-foot birdie putt on the par-5 13th. It only lasted as long as it took Pereira to match birdies from 18ft, and the Chilean responded with a daring shot over the edge of a bunker 6ft away for a birdie on the 14th. par-3.
Only 16 players remained under par in Southern Hills, a list that included Webb Simpson. On Friday, he had to save par from a bunker on his last hole to make the cut on the number. In a tie for 64th early in the third round, Simpson shot a 65 and moved up to tie for 10th.
He had eight shots back, apparently too far to catch Pereira, but so little is known about how he will react to the pressure on Sunday of trying to win a major.