TULSA, Okla. – The most unpredictable major of the last several years has broken out at Southern Hills Country Club as we enter the final round of the 2022 PGA Championship. Mito Pereira (-9), who was 175-1 to win this time last week on Caesars Sportsbook, is somehow up three strokes after 54 holes while battling the best players on the planet. He’s also suddenly a nearly odds-on favorite to take home his first PGA Tour win in the biggest spot imaginable.
Pereira closed like we thought the better players behind him might. He made three birdies over his last six holes after a winding stretch in the middle of his round made him look vulnerable and exposed to potential runs from Justin Thomas, Will Zalatoris and (briefly) Rory McIlroy. It was the stuff of champions, and his reward now is an experienced chase pack that will be as nervy as he is in just his second major championship start.
What’s even crazier than Pereira leading is the fact that the entire top six on the 54-hole leaderboard have combined to win just two PGA Tour events and zero majors in their careers. The final two pairings from the 2021 PGA Championship had twice as many major championship wins (10) as this year’s final two pairings have major championship top 10s (five).
Is Mito Pereira (!) Really going to win a major championship? That’s the question floating around Southern Hills right now, and the answer is that it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. Even if he doesn’t, somebody will almost certainly experience a life-changing day on Sunday because of the following stat: The last 33 major champions have all either led or been within four of the lead after 54 holes.
If that stat holds, then either Pereira, Zalatoris, Matthew Fitzpatrick or Cameron Young will have a major championship trophy on Sunday night. If it doesn’t, something truly historic will have happened.
Either way, Sunday will be special because major Sundays are always special. And as is almost always the case, there will be a moment or maybe several where the entire tournament is up in the air and nobody knows how it is possibly going to end. Because that will be the case, we need to discuss the players who have a chance to catch Pereira.
Let’s take a look at the five most likely contenders.
1. Will Zalatoris (-6): I mentioned that the final four in the pairings have just five top 10s in major championships. Zalatoris has four of them. He has “future star” written all over him, and he’s the player who, when we look back on the 2022 PGA Championship 10 years from now, would keep us from saying, “Huh, that was certainly an interesting and unexpected champion.” Zalatoris kicked away his lead early Saturday after going out in 39 and turning a one-stroke lead into a four-stroke deficit by the sixth hole. Life comes at you fast. The putter finally let him down Saturday, but Zalatoris can certainly win this tournament from tee to green Sunday. Of everyone in the top six on the leaderboard, he’s gained the most strokes on approach shots. He’ll bring the fight Sunday in a way that might surprise those who are unaware of his catalog and potential.
2. Matt Fitzpatrick (-6): The former US Amateur champion has an underwhelming major championship record, but he’s having the best season of his career on the PGA Tour. There are conflicting scenarios at play here with Fitzpatrick. He’s been weaker than the players above him from tee to green, and most of his success this week has come with the short game. However, he also has one of the best short games on the planet, so it’s not unusual for him to build a score in this manner. The big test for him on Sunday will be whether his sometimes-lacking ball-striking can stand up if conditions get spicy and superstars start charging. Regardless, this is his best chance yet to win a major.
3. Cameron Young (-5): It’s surprising that Young doesn’t get more love as a young American star. The 25-year-old son of a PGA pro has had an under-the-radar great season with three runner-up finishes (including at mighty Riviera back in February), hits it forever (second in driving distance this week behind McIlroy). and has the look of a future star on the PGA Tour. However, this is also his first Sunday at a major, and he’s going to feel some things he never felt on the Korn Ferry Tour. I don’t think Young is going to win, but this weekend at Southern Hills will be perfect prep for when he does two years from now.
4. Abraham Ancer (-4): Ancer has been solid all week, but he’s going to need some help from the top. The problem here is that combination of how many players are in front of him and how sprawling the distance is. If there were more players in front but the overall lead was just two or three, I could see Ancer swiping a victory in the state where he attended college. Conversely, if there were fewer players in front of him – and even if the lead was bigger than it five over him – I could be talked into that as well. However, unless Pereira, Zalatoris and Fitzpatrick all regress Sunday, it’s tough to see Ancer firing 66 to go get them and grab the win of his life.
5. Justin Thomas (-2): At seven back, he’s almost certainly too buried on this board to win his second PGA Championship. However, he’s the only player in the top 10 with enough firepower to pull off something special Sunday, and he’s also the only player in the field who can inject this tournament the excitement it needs (and has been known for over the last decade). If we get 2021 Players Championship JT slinging drives around corners and hitting everything hole high early, there will be a hopeful buzz that’s lacked throughout the week at Southern Hills. It probably won’t happen, of course, because results like that rarely do. As always, though, the question is worth asking: What if it does?
Rick Gehman, Mark Immelman and Jonathan Coachman recap Saturday’s action from Southern Hills. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.