With a bogey free 5-under 65 San Francisco-born, Texas native Will Zalatoris surged into the lead at the 104th PGA Championship. The second year pro who was runner up in his first Masters in 2021 took advantage of an unexpected, but favorable change in the weather to fire a 31 on the back nine, including three consecutive birdies at 11-13 in sunny, windless conditions. Mexico’s Mito Pereira is one shot back at 8-under after carding a 64. 2017 PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas is three shots back at 6-under.
“We lucked out with the draw for sure. I played the last eight holes with not much wind, but take it when you can get it,” Zalatoris affirmed after the round. “I saw that the wind was going to be pretty bad this morning, and I knew it was going to calm down a little bit in the afternoon. I didn’t think it was going to calm down this much. I grew up in Texas, so I’m kind of used to this wind, but having a day like this afternoon, this is pretty rare for us, to be honest.”
Greens in regulation are again telling the tale, (as well as putting, of course). Zalatoris is T-4 in that statistic hitting 26 greens out of 36 for 72.2%, while his playing partner in the final pairing today, Mito Pereira leads the, field hitting 29 of 36.
2012 and 2014 Masters Champion Bubba Watson stands alone in fourth at 5-under after firing a PGA Championship record-tying low round of 63. Watson birdied half the golf course, posting nine birdies against just two bogeys. It was the third time Southern Hills has surrendered a 63 in a major championship. Ray Floyd shot 63 in the opening round of the 1982 PGA Championship, while Tiger Woods did it in the second round of the 2007 Championship. Both golfers went on to win the Wanamaker Trophy.
That bodes well for Zalatoris actually, because all seven of the previous major championship winners at Southern Hills either led or were tied for the lead after 36 holes.
“It’s difficult to make up ground,” surmised ESPN lead commentator Scott Van Pelt. Not all of that can be attributed to Southern Hills; Ray Floyd and Tiger Woods were two of the greatest front-runners in golf history. Both had a tendency to win wire-to-wire. Tommy Bolt, the 1958 U.S. Open winner was tough as nails. All the others were precision shotmakers, including Nick Price in the 1994 PGA and Retief Goosen at the 2001 U.S. Open.
“I think history to me, it is what it is, but I’m going to go out and do my job, and hopefully it’s enough at the end,” Zalatoris responded when a journalist asked him about Southern Hills’ history of crowning winners who led after 36 holes. “I’ve got a long 36 holes ahead of me. I think if anything, like I said, you’re able to plot your way around this golf course, and if you hit as many greens as you possibly can, it’s kind of hard to mess it up. You still can, you know, if you get on the wrong slopes it still has a little bit of the attitude of like Augusta where you can hit 18 greens and walk off that place and shoot 80.”
We’ve been talking about the skinny blond kid ever since he burst on to the scene at the 2021 Masters, finishing second to Hideki Matsuyama in just his first appearance. He looks a little like Webb Simpson. Interestingly, they both went to Wake Forest University, playing and practicing at Old Town Club, another Perry Maxwell designed golf course.
Zalatoris has proven himself a shotmaker with exceptional planning and execution skills, an imperative at a complex, multi-layered golf course like Southern Hills, which can lay huge numbers on you or bleed you to death by 1,000 cuts.
“It’s tough golf courses that allows my ball-striking to really give me the best chances,” Zalatoris observed. “Obviously these greens aren’t easy, but hitting them on the right tiers and being able to have the 15- to 25-footers where I’m not going up and down slopes is huge.”
But Zalatoris’s gracious, almost wide-eyed with gratitude and wonder demeanor reminds me more of laid back Collin Morikawa. Will Z is a Californian masquerading as a Texan, perhaps both literally and metaphorically. He even sounds like Morikawa at his press conferences.
“I think is just I’ve kind of had an attitude with the majors, especially since the Masters, where I wanted to enjoy the experience as much as I could,” he admitted candidly. “I don’t want to leave anything — looking back from 20 years from now I don’t want to regret my attitude or anything like that…. Maybe it’s a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude, I don’t know. But like I said, I think there’s a little bit of the aspect that they’re just such golf courses, it allows my ball-striking to do the talking.”
There’s nothing fake about Zalatoris, and he now stands on the precipice of making it in the biggest way. He’s shown remarkable poise in the short 15 months he’s been on Tour, but now comes the most crucial test, surviving the crucible of the lead for 36 holes over a minefield of unexploded double bogeys with a hungry pack of golfers snarling at his heels. He’s got the pedigree. He’s got the poise. But Zalatoris must still maintain that killer instinct. Think Floyd in ’82 and Woods in ’07: relentless, calculating, precise, impregnable. That’s the only way forward at the PGA Championship. That’s the commitment needed to hoist the Wanamaker.