Wednesday, June 29 2022

TULSA — Taking the measure of Mito Pereira — and assessing his chances of winning the 104th PGA Championship — requires little more than an assessment of his final six holes in Saturday’s tumultuous third round at Southern Hills Country Club.

After a streak of four bogeys in five holes, Pereira, an outwardly impartial young man from Chile, saw a four-stroke lead shrink to one, and he appeared on the verge of a full-scale retreat from the roving pressures of a major championship. and the unforgiving nature of an inhospitable golf course.

But instead of collapsing, the 27-year-old rookie showed determination and ingenuity, converting three birdies, including a ‘bonus’ at the last, and asserting control in his first Championship appearance and only his second major departure.

Although not much is known about the player whose full name is Guillermo Pereira Hinke, it is obvious that “Mito”, a nickname, is not a wilted rose, or “rosa” as they prefer in Oklahoma, in reference to the state flower. He will enter Sunday’s final round with a three-stroke lead over second-round leader Will Zalatoris and Matt Fitzpatrick after battling an under-69. Only seven-time DP World Tour winner Pereira and Fitzpatrick broke par in every round.

“Just happy to be in this position,” Pereira said after posting nine-under 201 through 54 holes to become the first rookie since John Daly in 1991 to lead the PGA Championship after three rounds. “I was playing really well and all of a sudden I made four bogeys in five holes. It was a difficult place to live at that time. But I found myself from 13 years old.

Pereira entered the championship ranked 100th in the world and without a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour. But he was confident in his ball-striking after a decent week at the AT&T Byron Nelson, where he was tied for 17th. When he arrived at Southern Hills, which rewards execution from tee to green, his comfort level skyrocketed, so he worked hard on his putt – a recognized weak point – with coach Stephen Sweeney during the practice rounds.

He found a rhythm to his putt that he could trust. “Just feelings, basically,” he said.

This paid off throughout the championship. He ranks first in strokes won/putts at 7,033 – having entered the week 116th in the tour stat – and leads the field with 16 birdies, three more than anyone else. And that paid off in the biggest moment of the round on Saturday at No. 13 when he faced an 18-foot birdie putt just after seeing Zalatoris come home with a 35-footer to take a share of the head.

Pereira responded by guiding his birdie home to restore his lead.

“I think it’s more just mental,” he said of the turnaround. “Obviously that birdie really helped 13 get things going. But I wasn’t playing really badly in those bogeys. Just a couple, like a three putt, bad break. So, it wasn’t like I was losing my self-confidence. I was always hitting the ball very well, so I stick with it and try to do my best.

“It was definitely a big moment,” Foster said of the 13-year-old birdie. “He showed you something there. And then he probably had one of the best shots I’ve seen from him at 14. Just stunning.

Back to the ball-striking clinic. Pereira, who led the field into the greens in regulation through two rounds when he opened 68-64, drilled a 4-iron on the par-3 14 from 230 yards. The ball settled six feet from the cup and Pereira poured it. Three pars and a 27-foot birdie at the end set him up for his first 54-hole lead. He is vying to become the first Tour rookie to win a major championship since Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship and the sixth player in the stroke play era that began in 1958 to win on his PGA debut. Collin Morikawa was the newest in 2020.

Pereira’s course in golf has been a bit of a zigzag. He was a phenom in Chile at an early age and later attended IMG Academy in Florida before abruptly quitting the game for two years. Upon his rejuvenated return, he played a year at Texas Tech in 2014-15 before turning pro. A few years of progress, including two stints on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, ensued before he won three Korn Ferry Tour events during the extended 2020-21 season, earning him immediate promotion to the PGA. Tour at the end of June.

His only other major appearance came at the 2019 US Open at Pebble Beach, where he missed the cut. It may seem like a slim summary, but Pereira thinks he’s ready for now.

“If you play golf really well during the week, you’re going to win,” Pereira said. “It doesn’t matter your first time or your 10th time, if you play really, really well, you’re going to have chances.”

It’s a big chance. And Pereira is playing really, really well.

MORE PGA CHAMPIONSHIPS COVERAGE FROM GOLF DIGEST

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