TULSA, Okla. – The Oklahoma wind blew over the Southern Hills, then quickly left town in time for Will Zalatoris, Bubba Watson and yes, even Tiger Woods, to bring a dormant PGA Championship to life on Friday.
Zalatoris hit the ball on the button whether in the fairway or the rough, birding three straight in softer afternoon conditions for a 5-under 65 and a one-stroke lead on Mito Pereira from Chile.
Pereira missed a 7-foot putt on his last hole and had to settle for 64.
About an hour later, Watson missed a birdie putt just inside 25 feet on the 18th hole and still delivered the 18th round of 63 in PGA Championship history.
Woods wasn’t all that spectacular, but he made a pair of par putts from 15 feet and two birdies on his battered right leg for a 69 to make the cut in his second straight major.
He is still 12 shots behind Zalatoris, 25, a top striker, who was quick to recognize that timing was everything.
“We were lucky with the draw, that’s for sure,” he said. “I played the last eight holes with little wind. But take it when you can get it.”
His side of the draw faced the slightest wind Thursday morning and Friday afternoon, and it showed. Of the 22-under-par players heading into the weekend, only five had to endure the worst of Oklahoma’s notorious wind.
Justin Thomas focused on every shot, even short putts, in gusts that exceeded 30 mph in the morning and he was rightly proud of another 67 that put him atop the leaderboard. And then he could only watch from the couch in his rental home as the trees stopped swaying, the flags stopped flapping and the birdies kept falling.
Now it’s 36 more holes with wilder weather – temperatures in the 60s for Saturday with a high chance of rain – and an even playing field.
Zalatoris was 9-under 131, the lowest score over 36 holes in eight majors at Southern Hills, and will be in the final group with Pereira. Neither has won on the PGA Tour.
“I think it was a chance to get that draw,” Pereira said. “Sometimes you get the wrong draw, sometimes you get the right one. But today for sure there was wind in the back nine, there was almost none.”
Thomas was at 6 under 134, with Watson another shot behind.
Rory McIlroy was on the right side of the draw and failed to take advantage. He only birdied on the 13th hole. It was his only in a round of 71, although three saves by the end kept him within five of the lead.
“There’s a long way to go, there’s a lot of golf left,” McIlroy said. “We’re going to see a completely different golf course the next two days because of the wind direction. It’s going to play completely different. And that makes it very interesting.”
Jordan Spieth, playing alongside McIlroy and Woods, eventually tied for the tournament until he dunked in the water on the 18th for a bogey and a 69. He was 10 shots behind in his attempt to win. to get the major keeping him out of the Grand Slam career.
Zalatoris has some history in Southern Hills, winning the Trans-Mississippi Amateur in 2014 when the last two rounds were washed out by rain. His game works well here, and it shows.
He opened with a shot from the rough that tumbled the full length of the green from 2 feet. He hit another through a hole in the trees 7 feet away. Not only did he have a bogey-free card, but his five birdies were within 8 feet.
Zalatoris has a lot of experience in the majors. He was runner-up at the Masters ahead of Hideki Matsuyama on his 2021 debut. It’s his eighth major and he already has four top 10s.
“These are challenging golf courses that allow my ball striking to really give me the best chance,” he said. “Obviously these greens aren’t easy, but hitting them on the right levels and being able to have the 15 to 25 feet where I don’t go up and down slopes is huge.”
The weekend won’t include Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, who stumbled badly in the stretch and finished with a double bogey for a 75 to miss the cut – 4 over par – by two.
Jon Rahm thought he could have gotten back into the mix with a 69 to make it to 2 of 142, and he was skeptical of the forecast for less wind.
“They said the wind was going to drop this afternoon. No it’s not. It’s Oklahoma,” Rahm said. “It’s going to stay as windy as we got it.”
Watson had never scored better than 68 in his previous 49 rounds in the PGA Championship. And then he dropped nine birdies and goes into the weekend with a chance. Woods in the 2007 PGA and Raymond Floyd in the 1982 PGA were the others with a 63 in Southern Hills. Both went on to win.
“Without the heat, the cloud cover made it a bit milder. But when that wind died down, you just felt like you had a chance to score,” Watson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.