TULSA, Okla. — After several of golf’s biggest stars failed to make up ground on moving day at the PGA Championship on Saturday, six players are in good position to win their first major championship at Southern Hills Country Club.
Chile’s Mito Pereira moved to 9 under after the third round and is the first player since John Daly in 1991 to hold the outright 54-hole lead in 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 seeking to become the first PGA Tour rookie to win a major since Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship. He’ll look to join world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and Collin Morikawa as 20-somethings who won majors recently.
“That’s just how it is,” Pereira said. “If you play really good golf during the week, you’re going to win. Doesn’t matter [if it’s] your first time or your 10th time, if you play really, really well you’re going to have chances.”
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 past 50 years to get his first tour victory at the PGA Championship. Abraham Ancer and Seamus Power, two more players in striking distance, have just one victory each.
Here’s a look at the top contenders to win the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday:
Pereira, from Chile, got to 10 under at one point during the third round, but then bogeyed four of five holes. He didn’t panic and rebounded with consecutive birdies on Nos. 13 and 14. He added another one with a 27-footer on No. 18.
Playing in just his second major, Pereira leads the field in strokes gained: putting (2.344). He has done just about everything else well through the first 54 holes, too. He ranks in the top 25 in strokes gained: tee to green (third), approach (10th), around the green (24th) and off the tee (tied for 12th).
Pereira is ranked 100th in the world. Since the Official World Golf Ranking became official in 1986, only two players ranked 100th or higher have held a 54-hole lead of 3 shots or more. One of them was John Daly, who had a 3-shot lead and won the 1991 PGA Championship. The other was Jean Van de Velde, who had a 5-shot advantage going into the final round of The Open in 1999. Van de Velde, of course, had a famous meltdown on the 18th and lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie.
One of the big questions going into the weekend was whether Zalatoris’ putter would stay hot. He came into the PGA Championship tied for 185th in strokes gained: putting. He led the field through the first two rounds, but ran into problems early in the third.
After missing just two putts inside 10 feet over the first 36 holes, he missed four inside 6 feet while carding a 4-over 39 on the front nine Saturday. He putted better on the back nine, including making a 35-footer for birdie on the par-5 13th.
Zalatoris is one of the best ball strikers in the world and has scrambled exceptionally well this week, especially out of the sand, which has baffled many players at Southern Hills. If he can hit more fairways off the tee and his putter gets hot again, he’s going to be difficult to beat Sunday.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up around Lanny Wadkins and Lee Trevino and obviously those guys are major champions, which is funny to even think of [his friends] Scottie [Scheffler] and Jordan [Spieth], as well,” Zalatoris said. “Just stick to my game. Got nothing to lose [Sunday]. I know I’m playing some really good golf, and hopefully at the end of the day it adds up to the lower score.”
Fitzpatrick, from England, is 17th in the Official World Golf Ranking. He is the highest-ranked player without a PGA Tour victory. The former Northwestern star has won seven times on the DP World Tour, including the British Masters and the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai twice.
Fitzpatrick, 27, didn’t have a great track record in majors coming into the week. He had just one top-10 in 27 starts — a tie for seventh at the 2016 Masters. He was expected to be a contender at next month’s U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he won the U.S. Amateur in 2013. He is the only Englishman in the last 110 years to win that event.
Fitzpatrick said his earlier struggles in majors were probably because his game wasn’t as good as his world ranking.
“I’ve spoken about it with my coaches at length about my major record,” Fitzpatrick said. “You know, I’ve always just said to them, ‘I just want to give myself a chance because I backed myself at the end of the day.’ I feel like whenever I’ve had a chance in Europe, I’ve played very well. Even over here when I’ve had chances to win, if you really look, I’ve not had that many chances to win. But when I have, I’ve played well. I’ve not 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 just the 10th player to win back-to-back events in KFT history. On Sunday, he’ll be in the next-to-last group at a major championship, trying to erase a 4-shot deficit.
The PGA Tour rookie already had three runners-up, 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 field in shots gained: off the tee (2.088) and is second in driving distance (320.6 yards).
Winning the PGA Championship would probably be extra special for Young, whose father, David, is a longtime pro at Sleepy Hollow Country Club, which is located on the Hudson River north of New York.
“It’s because of the PGA that he’s had the job he had for the last many years,” Young said. “Without that, at Sleepy Hollow, I don’t start playing at 4 years old or earlier. I don’t have the access that I did growing up. I started playing in PGA junior events when I was 9, 8, something like that.
“For me, I’ve been given so much access to golf because of that organization. So to kind of have the chance to go from local PGA junior tournaments, national PGA juniors to Junior Ryder Cup, to even play in a PGA Championship, is really cool for me. It kind of has been with me my whole way through.”
If everything goes right (and wrong for the favorites)
Ancer was born in Texas and played at the University of Oklahoma, so he knows how to handle the swirling winds. Through 54 holes, he has hit 32 of 42 fairways and 33 of 54 greens. He has navigated Southern Hills’ bent grass greens well, too, as he ranks eighth in strokes gained: putting (4.758).
Ancer, who won the 2021 FedEx St. Jude Invitational, tied for 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 anticipated would make a charge Saturday. Instead, it was Power, who is making his second major start. He carded birdies on four of the last seven holes and shot 3-under 67.
Power won 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 shots
Thomas, who was trying to add a second Wanamaker Trophy to his only major victory at the 2017 PGA Championship, had his chances to make up ground Saturday. But he had three bogeys on each side, with just two birdies, and shot 4-over 74. He’ll have to go low Sunday to make up ground.
One day after tying the PGA Championship scoring record with a 7-under 63, Watson carded a 3-over 73. The two-time Masters champion was 1 under on the front and had moved into second place. But then he had four bogeys on the back, including three in the last four holes.
“I’d love to be a bit closer to the lead,” Watson said. “I missed some short putts coming down the stretch. [On Friday], I made 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 at age 50.
“It blows the ceiling off what we thought was impossible before, really,” Cink said. “Phil is his own guy, for sure, and he’s one of the best the game has ever seen. But the fact that at his age he could not only just compete but finish it off and win, coupled with the fact I know I’ve got recent wins on the PGA Tour, it really gives me a load of belief that I can go out there and compete in a tournament like this.”
Cink is 7 shots back, but anything can happen in the final 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 is averaging 314.3 yards off the tee.
“I feel physically just as capable as ever, if not more so,” Cink said. “I’ve got the most speed I’ve ever had. I’m hitting the ball as far or farther than I’ve ever hit it, and power is a big deal in this game, especially on a course like this. I do not lack in that department whatsoever.”