TULSA — They’re dwarves, technically, the four par-3 holes of Southern Hills. They’re Nos. 6, 8, 11 and 14, but they ought to go by names such as Nasty, Beastly, Ornery and Just Plain Mean (which would be No. 6). They conspired with Ohio State-vs.-Michigan kind of weather Saturday to fluster the extraordinary golfers of the 104th PGA Championship, and they helped shape matters into one funky leader board.
The top of that leader board features players with world rankings of 100, 17, 30, 38, 21 and 42 after a day of autumn wind and 50-something temperatures and brooding clouds. It features only one top-10 player, No. 9 Justin Thomas, and he just spent Saturday riding bumpily across six bogeys and two birdies for a 74 that dropped him seven shots off the pace. He played the four dwarves in bogey, par, par and par, even if he did miss a six-footer on No. 6 that left him half-crumpled in disbelief.
At the top of the board at 9 under par stood one Guillermo “Mito” Pereira, a 27-year-old Chilean ranked 100th who actually had the nerve to birdie No. 14 after a rash of bogeys that saw his stunning four-shot lead whittled to one. By the end, once he birdied Nos. 13, 14 and 18, he had rebuilt that lead to three.
Behind him stood Matt Fitzpatrick, an onrushing 27-year-old Englishman who steeled himself from two opening bogeys, birdied six holes thereafter, shot a spiffy 67 and sat at 6 under par, tied for second with Will Zalatoris, the 25-year-old second-round leader and 2021 Masters runner-up who traipsed across such misery that he seemed doomed as he hit a wayward drive on No. 7 and hollered, “Fore!” Well, he got himself together after four bogeys on his first seven holes — including that dastardly No. 6 — and kept his contention bubbling into Sunday.
“It was brutal out there,” he said of a round in which he missed a birdie putt on No. 9 and bemoaned, “I have no idea how that goes [to the] right.”
Right behind Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris, 25-year-old Cameron Young turned up alone in fourth at 5 under par with a 67 that included a Collin Morikawa-style eagle on the par-4 No. 17, on which Young drove the green and made a 24-footer. Right behind Young, there was 31-year-old Abraham Ancer of Mexico, who went up and down like so many and wound up on par 70, then said, “It’s definitely such a good golf course, and it’s so demanding off the tee and coming into the greens, and the par-3s are playing really, really tough, too.”
Irishman Seamus Power logged a 67 for sixth at 3 under, followed by a trio of Thomas, Stewart Cink and Bubba Watson at 2 under, even as those guys shot 74, 71 and 73, respectively.
All the players coped with the kind of weather that might make you want to establish the running game in the first quarter, and they bounced up and down the board even as Pereira managed to stay atop all day from early on. They coped with a tournament that has shipped them all sorts of conditions in three days, from the furnace of Thursday to the early winds of Friday to the November of Saturday that followed a wee-hours thunderstorm of quite some electricity. They coped especially with No. 6, a distinctive juncture at a back corner of the course where the hole is so close to the No. 7 tee that you could crawl there and, in many cases, may well wish to do so.
“I mean, No. 6 is 200 [yards] and, I’m not sure, 15 yards dead into the wind,” Power said, “and, and it’s a very small target.” It sacked Tiger Woods, who went in the water and triple-bogeyed it on the way to his 79 in what looked like quite some excruciation and preceded his withdrawal from the event come Saturday evening. It ransacked Rory McIlroy, who led with a big old 65 after Thursday but who had sunk to even par after three rounds and after double-bogeying No. 6, bogeying No. 8 and triple-bogeying No. 11.
He birdied No. 14, just for variety.
On No. 6, he watched his tee shot trickle into the water, which led to a sad-looking drop beside a wee foot bridge, which led to an addled-looking approach that stopped and groaned at 28 feet, which led to a two-putt, which led to those in the galleries chatting about how much carnage they had witnessed on the hole ranked first for woe. It spent Saturday allowing five birdies, 34 pars, 31 bogeys, six double bogeys and three “other,” a turn of language in which the “other” is especially harrowing.
Gazing down the board at how the leaders fared in the par-3s, No. 6 showed only Fitzpatrick and Young making birdies — or, you might surmise, minor miracles — with bogeys by Zalatoris, Cink, Thomas and even Webb Simpson, who did shoot a 65 to land in a thick tie for 10th at 1 under. No. 8 showed only bogeys and pars. No. 11, only pars, which were great scores, and one bogey from Power. No. 14, at least, dared to stage some birdies, including from Pereira.
“Yeah, I was really playing good,” Pereira said, “and suddenly I made four bogeys in five holes [Nos. 8 through 12]. It was a tough place to be at that moment. But I just found myself from 13 on, I made 3 under, and those holes are pretty tough.”
He recovered even from an indignity on No. 9, where his approach up the hill from the left side of the fairway found the green, until the course decided it had not found the green sufficiently enough — how huffy — and sent the ball back down the slope to a point on the right edge of the fairway.
“I think it’s more mental,” he said of his eventual three-birdie rebound from all of that, and that meant that suddenly, this No. 100 player in the world, who has thrived on the PGA’s Latin American tour and the minor league Korn Ferry Tour, somebody playing in his second major, will begin the closing Sunday ahead by three and trying to manage his guts through horrors such as Nasty, Beastly, Ornery and Just Plain Mean.
Asked how he might prepare, he said, “I don’t know yet,” which probably made sense seeing as how, the way things have gone here, Sunday could always bring snow.