PGA overnight: McIlroy in awe at Tiger's 'monumental' mental strength

American Will Zalatoris fired a 65 to claim the 36-hole lead at the PGA, a shot ahead of Chile’s Mito Pereira with Bubba Watson lurking
PGA overnight: McIlroy in awe at Tiger's 'monumental' mental strength

PAIN GAME: Tiger Woods on the 12th during the second round of the PGA Championship at Southern Hills

TULSA, Oklahoma – Bubba Watson was just trying to make the cut. He ended up getting a lot closer to the lead instead, tying the PGA Championship record with a 63 despite two bogeys and a near-miss on the last that would have been his 10th birdie of the day.

Watson made the most of a relatively calm afternoon at Southern Hills, making nine birdies to climb into solo fourth place at 5-under overall. But he was hardly alone in an afternoon scoring blitz after the winds died down and the course became somewhat defenceless.

American Will Zalatoris fired a 65 to claim the 36-hole lead at 9-under 131, a shot ahead of Chile’s Mito Pereira shot 64 to get to 8-under. Despite playing in the toughest conditions in the morning, Justin Thomas shot his second straight 67 to sit in third at 6-under.

Scoring resembled a pro-am more than a major championship when greens left had been left uncut or rolled to avoid getting out of control in the stiff morning gusts were receptive in the afternoon calm.

“Without the heat, the cloud cover made it a little bit softer,” said Watson, a two-time Masters champion. “But when that wind died down, you just felt like you had a chance to score. I'm not saying it was easy by any means. I just hit some putts, hit some shots that helped me. You know, my whole goal was to make the cut, so I was just trying to stay ahead of the cut line, and every time I made a birdie I just kept saying, that's one more to the good.

“I think I laughed, I made fun of my caddie on No. 12 tee. I think I said I had to shoot 7-over the rest of the way to make the cut. I was always trying to figure out what that was because around here the golf course can get you real fast.” 

Zalatoris – who at age 25 already considers himself a “majors specialist” despite competing in only seven prior majors – posted a bogey-free 65 that included a remarkable recovery from the trees on the first, a run of three consecutive birdies from 12-14 and a spectacular birdie carved over the trees on 17 to stake the all-important midway lead at a course where the 36-hole leader has won all seven previous majors it played host to.

“I got away with murder a few times today for sure, especially starting off the day hitting the left trees and hitting it to a kick-in,” said Zalatoris. “Same thing on 17, being able to get out of there with birdie where it was looking like I was going to be making 5.

“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.” 

Rory McIlroy, the first-round leader after a spectacular 65 on Thursday, did not take advantage of the better half of the draw as his 1-over 71 dropped him into a tie for fifth at 4-under with Abraham Ancer and Davis Riley, five shots behind Zalatoris who played in the group directly in front of McIlroy.

But Rory noted that despite Southern Hills’ history, the two players atop the board don’t have a lot of history trying to close out a major championship. Pereira is only playing his second career major and missed the cut in the 2019 U.S. Open.

Tiger Woods fought his way to a 1-under 69 on Friday to make his second consecutive cut in a major since returning to play on his surgically repaired legs. Despite his obvious discomfort walking, Woods rallied after making a double bogey on the par-3 11th that put him below the cut line. Birdies at 13 and 16 got him back to 3-over and into the weekend.

“You can't win the tournament if you miss the cut. I've won tournaments, not major championships, but I've won tournaments on the cut number,” said Woods. “There's a reason why you fight hard and you're able to give yourself a chance on the weekend. You just never know when you might get hot.

“We'll go out there tomorrow, and hopefully I can do something like what Bubba did today.” 

McIlroy played the first two rounds with Woods and marveled at his determination.

“I mean, just unbelievable making the cut at Augusta and making the cut here,” McIlroy said of Tiger. “I was joking with Joey (LaCava, Tiger’s caddie) yesterday and saying, he could have come back and played like Honda and Valspar, two of the flattest courses on tour. It might have been a bit easier for him, but he comes to two of the toughest walks that we have.

“Look, he's the ultimate pro. Looking at him yesterday, if that would have been me, I would have been considering pulling out and just going home. But Tiger is different and he's proved he's different, it was just a monumental effort.” 

Everybody will have their work cut out for them chasing Zalatoris on a course that will play very different on the weekend with temperatures nearly 30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler and winds from the opposite direction.

Zalatoris doesn’t expect anyone to start engraving his name on the trophy just because his the leader halfway at Southern Hills.

“I've got a long 36 holes ahead of me,” he said. “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.” 

With proven major winners like Thomas, Watson and McIlroy on his heels, it’s going to be a challenge maintaining a tradition of winning from the front.

Watson has his own bit of history on his side. Only Raymond Floyd (1982 PGA) and Woods (2007 PGA) have ever shot 63 at Southern Hills and both won those majors.

“I could shoot 80-80 and I could care less what I did on Friday,” Watson said. “It's very nice. Don't get me wrong. It's an honour to be able to shoot 63 on any golf course. I mean, I'll take it. But I've got to look forward to tomorrow and see where I'm at and hit hopefully just as quality shots as I did today.”

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