Planet Golf — 20 May 2022 by GW staff and news services
Seven shots down, JT takes PGA title

TULSA, Okla. — Justin Thomas is a major champion when he least expected it.

Thomas matched a PGA Championship record Sunday when he rallied from a seven-shot deficit at Southern Hills, and then saved his most exquisite shot-making for a three-hole playoff to defeat Will Zalatoris.

He closed with a 3-under 67, matching the low score of a final round made difficult more by nerves than the wind. He seized control in the playoff with a 3-wood to 35 feet on the 301-yard 17th hole for a two-putt birdie.

He tapped in for par and stood tall with a smile, a mixture of joy and disbelief.

“I was asked early in the week what lead is safe and I said, ‘No lead,’” Thomas said. “I can’t believe I found myself in a playoff.”

Thomas needed plenty of help, and Mito Pereira provided it in a tragic finish. The 27-year-old from Chile, playing in only his second major, took a one-shot lead to the final hole and drove into a creek to make double bogey.

It was the first time since Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open that a player lost a one-shot lead in the final hole to lose a major.

Zalatoris looked like he had thrown away his chances for a first major — and first PGA TOUR victory — when he three-putted from just outside 20 feet on the 16th hole. But he responded with a birdie from the bunker at the 17th and holed an 8-foot par putt on the 18th for a 71.

He joined Thomas at 5-under 275, and they played on when Pereira faltered.

Thomas had gone 14 months without winning, dating to THE PLAYERS Championship last year. Now he has a pair of PGA Championship titles with his 15 career victories.

John Mahaffey in the 1978 PGA Championship at Oakmont was the other player to come from seven shots behind on the final day. He also won in a playoff over Tom Watson and Jerry Pate.

THIRD ROUND

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 three-shot lead over Matt Fitzpatrick and Will Zalatoris.

For Tiger Woods, his slide on a battered right leg seemed to last all day in what turned out to be his last round. Woods withdrew for the first time in a major as a pro. He limped around Southern Hills for a 79, his worst score ever in the PGA Championship.

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 seven 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 nine shots back.

Zalatoris had his problems, too. He dropped four shots in the opening seven holes and went from a one-shot lead to a five-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 Korn Ferry Tour 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 four 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 DP World 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 five 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 who 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.

Woods was long gone and aching when all this action unfolded. He looked pained as ever in the morning after a half-hour delay from rain, making five straight bogeys, hitting two balls in the water and having to hole a 5-foot putt on the final hole to break 80.

The only other time he withdrew from a major was when he injured his wrist in the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills when he was an amateur.

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 eight shots back, seemingly too far to catch Pereira, but so little is known about how he will be react to the Sunday pressure of trying to win a major.

THIRD ROUND

TULSA, Okla. – Will Zalatoris first competed at Southern Hills eight years ago, as a recent high-school graduate with high upside but whose putter had kept him from reaching his full potential and severely shortened the list of colleges that wanted him to play on their golf team. He’d recently won his state amateur, the biggest title of his career and a sign that perhaps he was ready to capitalize on the ballstriking that already for years had been the fodder for legends around Dallas.

The Trans-Mississippi Amateur, a historic event that already had existed for more than a century and whose past champions included Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw and Bryson DeChambeau, came to Southern Hills in 2014 and Zalatoris shot two rounds in the 60s to take the 36-hole lead. Then the thunderstorms rolled in and Zalatoris was declared the winner without hitting another shot.

It was bittersweet for a teenager who wanted to test himself under the pressure that comes from trying to close out a golf tournament but also had just earned his first national amateur title.

“One day I hope to play professional golf and this is part of that process,” Zalatoris said after he was declared the champion. “I’m biased, but Southern Hills is seriously one of the best courses I’ve ever played. Everything is right in front of you; nothing is tricked up. And it is hard. I mean, this is a really hard golf course, and I love it.”

The love affair has continued in his return to Tulsa eight years later for the PGA Championship. Zalatoris, who’s established himself as an almost automatic contender in majors since playing his way off the Korn Ferry Tour in late 2020, is the 36-hole leader after shooting 66-65. He’s one shot ahead of Mito Pereira, and leads Justin Thomas, by far the best player from the harder half of the draw, is three shots back in third place. Bubba Watson is 5 under par after a course-record tying 63, while Rory McIlroy and Zalatoris’ former roommate, Davis Riley, are tied for fifth, five shots back, along with Oklahoma alum Abraham Ancer.

Zalatoris has always been at his best when conditions are at their hardest. He has four top-10s in his last six appearances in majors. The game’s toughest setups, “let my ballstriking do the talking,” said the man who leads the TOUR in Strokes Gained: Approach this season. That’s why the idea of winning a major as his first TOUR title doesn’t feel unfathomable to Zalatoris.

His ability to thrive in difficult conditions is a combination of both nature and nurture. He grew up around major champions, and his peers were players who would go on to win them. Hitting balls under the watchful eyes of Ken Venturi and Lanny Wadkins, and growing up alongside Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler, is invaluable, but so is the preternatural gift that Zalatoris has displayed since he was a pre-teen.

When he was 12 years old, his coach at the time, David Price, would call out a shot shape mid-swing, forcing Zalatoris to make the necessary adjustments on the fly to produce the requested shot. “At 12 years old, this little bugger could do it,” Price said. It was at that same age that Zalatoris shot 65 to qualify for the U.S. Junior Amateur. The winner that year? Spieth, who won the same event again in 2011. Scheffler would win the same event two years later, and then Zalatoris became the champion in 2014 (Riley lost in the championship match to both Scheffler and Zalatoris in those consecutive years).

Now Zalatoris is in position to follow in the footsteps of his childhood rivals by winning a major championship. His upright swing produces soaring iron shots and helps him hoist balls out of thick rough, two attributes that come in handy these weeks. That’s one reason he’s leading despite hitting just half his fairways through the first two rounds at Southern Hills. Only five players who made the cut have hit fewer fairways than Zalatoris. He still ranks in the top 10 of both greens hit and Strokes Gained: Approach despite missing more of Southern Hills’ expanded fairways than most of his fellow contenders. But the most promising development is his performance with the putter.

One week after a disheartening 36 holes on the greens led to a missed cut in his hometown AT&T Byron Nelson, Zalatoris leads the field in Strokes Gained: Putting (+6.18). He made four putts outside 20 feet in the opening round. On Friday, his longest make was from 8 feet but he was a perfect 5 for 5 from that crucial distance of 5-10 feet. After Friday’s bogey-free round, where he hit just 11 greens, he sheepishly admitted, “I got away with murder a few times today for sure.”

Of the 10 greens he’s missed this week, he’s gotten up-and-down all but once. His ability to grind it out in tough conditions is enhanced by the gratitude he tries to bring into each major. While others may gripe about course conditions or difficult setups, the golf-obsessed Zalatoris tries to remind himself that these are the tournaments he dreamt as a kid about playing. A bit of self-belief doesn’t help either, especially for a player who has yet to win on TOUR. But no one has had success in this game without a healthy amount of confidence, even if it borders on delusion.

“Something Scottie Scheffler said the other day I think resonates a lot, where what made him become a major champion, he said that it was belief,” Zalatoris said. “I think that’s kind of the same attitude that any of us have out here to win, whether it’s a regular event, a Korn Ferry event, or a major.”

Eight years ago, he arrived at Southern Hills as a kid who just hoped to play pro golf. On Sunday, he could leave here as a major champion.

FIRST ROUND

TULSA, Okla. – Many consider Southern Hills’ 12th the best hole on the property. Its fairway turns left around a bunker before diving down to a green protected by the creek that runs throughout the course. The rolling topography and subtle, but scenic, hazard make No. 12 memorable.

The PGA Championship’s headliners arrived there shortly before 9 a.m., while the weather was still cool and a gentle breeze rustled through the trees. Tiger Woods was already under par after an opening birdie that sent the swelling gallery’s collective imagination preparing for a historic Sunday. Woods, leaning on the formula that netted him 15 major championships, hit iron off the 12th tee to ensure he was in the fairway.

Rory McIlroy, whose eight years without a major are full of frustrating first rounds, wasn’t interested in the safe play. Though he acknowledged Tuesday that Woods’ conservative approach cuts down on the costly mistakes that have marred McIlroy’s major scorecards in recent years, he wasn’t intent on emulating it. Not this week, at least. The reimagined Southern Hills gives McIlroy room to wield his greatest weapon. And he did.

Despite the creek that runs down the left side of No. 12, McIlroy sent his drive sailing over the bunker that guards the corner of the dogleg. The 354-yard tee shot left him just 86 yards to the green on the 461-yard hole. McIlroy’s wedge play often ignites angst, but he stuffed this one to 2 feet.

Not exactly the way Perry Maxwell drew it up. But such is the modern game.

“I was playing to my spots, and those guys obviously have a different game plan. It’s just different,” said Woods, who parred 12 after hitting his 195-yard approach to 20 feet. “The game is played differently now, and it’s very aggressive.”

Few use that strategy better than McIlroy, who seems capable of winning tournaments with his driver alone. Only a handful of players can keep up with him when he’s driving it his best, which he did Thursday, looking like the player who won four majors from 2011-14, including a couple of eight-shot routes.

McIlroy shot 65 on Thursday to take the first-round lead at the PGA Championship, averaging 331.6 yards on all tee shots to lead the field in that metric. His two measured drives traveled 369 and 378 drives. And, to top it off, he missed just four fairways. Throw in his final-round 64 en route to a runner-up at Augusta National and McIlroy is now 13 under par in his last two major rounds.

It’s just the fifth time that a player has shot lower than 130 in consecutive major rounds. Front-runners have a good history at Southern Hills, as well.

The eventual winner in each of the seven previous majors at Southern Hills (four PGAs, three U.S. Opens) has held at least a share of the lead after 26 of the 28 rounds. Every major winner at Southern Hills has held at least a share of the lead after 36 and 54 holes.

McIlroy’s birdie at 12 was part of four in a row as he opened with a 4-under 31 on Southern Hills’ back nine. He added two more birdies at Nos. 2 and 5 to put some history within reach, but bogeyed two of the next three holes. He capped the round by holing a 19-foot birdie putt on Southern Hills’ ninth hole.

The 65 was McIlroy’s lowest opening round in a major since the 2011 U.S. Open, which was his first victory in a major.

“I think when your game is feeling like that, it’s just a matter of going out there and really sticking to your game plan, executing as well as you possibly can, and just sort of staying in your own little world,” McIlroy said. “I did that really well today. It was nice to get off to that good start and sorta keep it going.

“I feel like this course, it lets you be pretty aggressive off the tee if you want to be, so I hit quite a lot of drivers out there and took advantage of my length and finished that off with some nice iron play and some nice putting.”

Southern Hills’ two par-5s each played more than 630 yards but McIlroy birdied both after reaching a greenside bunker in two shots. He was 4 under on the par-4s, as well. Both his bogeys came on the front nine’s pair of par-3s, but he also birdied the 221-yard 14th after hitting a 6-iron to 25 feet.

When Woods won here 15 years ago, he tactically navigated his way around, leaning heavily on his 2-iron stinger to keep his ball out of the thick Bermudagrass rough. That was before Gil Hanse renovated the course to bring it back to its roots. Fairways were widened and trees were removed. The rough is a more manageable 2 inches this week, bringing the dreaded flyer into play while also giving players an opportunity to execute recovery shots.

McIlroy’s play was the highlight of Thursday’s marquee group. Woods struggled to a 74 while Jordan Spieth, who’s trying to complete the career Grand Slam this week, shot 72. McIlroy said the wider fairways made the fans feel farther away but he was excited to perform in front of the day’s biggest crowd.

“It’s always a cool group to be a part of,” he said.

He put on a show Thursday.

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