PGA overnight: From quitting golf academy to the brink of a major, who is Mito Pereira?

Chilean isn't the only one preparing for the biggest Sunday of his pro career, with Waterford's Seamus Power six back of the leader at Southern Hills 
PGA overnight: From quitting golf academy to the brink of a major, who is Mito Pereira?

HOT STUFF: Chile's Mito Pereira makes his putt on the 18th in Saturday's third at the PGA Championship in Tulsa.

Tulsa, Oklahoma - WHO is Mito Pereira? Ready or not, the golf world is about to find out at the PGA Championship.

Only a year ago, the 27-year-old Chilean was playing on the Korn Ferry Tour before earning a mid-season battlefield promotion to the PGA Tour by winning three times in the same season on the developmental circuit. Now playing only his second career major, Pereira posted his third straight under-par round to stake himself to a three-shot lead at 9-under-par 201 at Southern Hills.

His closing 25-foot birdie putt for 69 leaves him three shots ahead of England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick and American Will Zalatoris who sit at 6-under. Cameron Young is in fourth at 5-under and Mexico’s Abraham Ancer fifth at 4-under.

Waterford’s Séamus Power is alone in sixth at 3-under just in front of a phalanx of major winners including Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson and Stewart Cink at 2-under and Webb Simpson and Gary Woodland among a crowd at 1-under.

“Exciting? Very much so. This is why you practice all the way back to playing in West Waterford,” said Power after his third-round 67, tied for the second lowest score on Saturday. “This is why you’re practicing crappy conditions and when things are going badly this is why you fight through it to get in these kind of spots and see all the work pay off.

“The most exciting thing about it is just to test your game against a top field on a top course.” 

Power and everyone else left in the field (except Tiger Woods, who withdrew late Saturday after hobbling in obvious discomfort to a third-round 79) is chasing the relatively unknown Pereira.

Guillermo “Mito” Pereira quit playing golf for two years as a junior before picking it back up and playing at Texas Tech University. He turned professional in 2015 and immediately started having success, becoming the youngest player to ever reach No. 1 on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica’s Order of Merit, gaining promotion to the 2017 Web.com (now Korn Ferry) Tour in 2017.

Last season, he became only the 12th player to earn the automatic three-win promotion to the PGA Tour by winning his last two in back-to-back weeks last June. His only previous major was missing a cut after qualifying into the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Once again, he immediately played like he belonged on the PGA Tour, finishing inside the top-six in four tour events in a six-start stretch from July to September capped by his third-place finish in the 2021-22 season-opening Fortinet Championship in Napa, California.

But nothing indicated he was capable of doing what he’s doing this week against the world’s best. If you’d asked him if this was possible when he quit a junior academy in Florida having fallen out of love with the game, his response would have been like everyone’s else.

“That you're crazy,” he said. “No, I mean, I took the two years off but when I came back I just I knew I could do it. I knew I could get to here, and I just kept the confidence. Obviously, there were some up and downs but really happy to be here.” 

Pereira’s father was a weekend golfer and his mother took him to their course in Chile one time to watch his dad play.

“I started probably around 2, 3 years old, plastic clubs,” he said. “I remember first tournament was at 6; first international tournament at 8. Kept going.” Pereira appeared to recognize the absurdity of what he was doing at Southern Hills when a couple of early birdies overtook 36-hole leader Zalatoris and pushed him to a four-shot lead at 10-under par. He subsequently bogeyed four of the next five holes.

“I was playing really good and suddenly I made four bogeys in five holes. It was a tough place to be at that moment,” he said.

But just as quickly, he birdied 13 and 14 before adding his closing birdie on the difficult 18th to shoot his third straight round in the 60s.

“Obviously that birdie really helped on 13 to get things going,” he said. “I wasn't playing really bad in those bogeys. Just a couple, like one three-putt, one bad break. So it wasn't like I was losing my confidence. I was still hitting the ball really well so I just hold to that and like try to do my best.” 

Now he faces the biggest round of his life on a course that has been historically difficult for chasers to catch up. His fate is largely in his own inexperienced hands.

“It's by far the biggest tournament I played, the biggest round of golf and tomorrow is going to be even bigger,” Pereira said. “I don't know how to say, just try to keep it simple. Try to do the same things that I've been doing, try to not even look at the people that's around me.” 

He’ll be paired Sunday with Fitzpatrick, a two-time Ryder Cupper and the only other player in the field to post three sub-par rounds and in the most difficult of the weather conditions. Fitzpatrick bounced back from consecutive bogeys to start his third round and shoot a 3-under 67 with consecutive birdies to finish. Despite his professional success, the Englishman only has one previous top 10 in 27 career major starts.

“I've spoken about it with my coaches at length about my major record. You know, I've always just said to them, I just want to give myself a chance because I backed myself at the end of the day,” Fitzpatrick said. “I feel like whenever I've had a chance in Europe, I've played very well. Even over here when I've had chances to win – if you really look, I've not had that many chances to win – but when I have, I've played well. I've not lost it.” Zalatoris bounced back from his own poor start with four bogeys in the first seven holes but got in at 6-under after a 73. He has four top-10 finishes in only six major starts as a professional, including runner-up at the 2021 Masters.

“I've got nothing to lose,” Zalatoris said. “Mito played an incredible round today. You could argue today was as good as J.T.'s 67 in the morning with the winds yesterday. I think you've got to go out and get it. Everybody's got to go out and earn it. Just like I said, keep doing what I'm doing and hopefully it adds up to the lowest score.”

Meanwhile Rory McIlroy shot himself right out of the top 20, fought his way back to the top 10 and then three-putted his way into a slim chance to winning another PGA Championship at Southern Hills.

After limping off with a 4-over 74 that left him even par overall and with 15 players and nine shots between himself and leader Pereira, McIlroy left without comment.

McIlroy started Saturday just five behind 36-hole leader Will Zalatoris, but he fell 10 shots off the pace with a disastrous six-hole stretch at 6-over that started with a double bogey on the par-3 sixth and ended with a triple on the par-3 11th. At that point, his first-round leading 65 seemed a distant memory as he was 2-over par and outside the top 20.

But McIlroy finally found a little spark and made birdies on 13, 14 and 16 to climb back into red figures and a tie for 10th at 1-under heading to the driveable par-4 17th. He failed to capitalise there after hitting into the greenside bunker, then he compounded that disappointment by three-putting 18 from the front fringe, blowing his first putt 12 feet past the hole.

His consecutive over-par rounds under the best of conditions presented at Southern Hills was dispiriting effort that wiped out all the gains from his sterling 65 on Thursday. It will take a something similar to his charging 64 finish at the Masters last month and help from the inexperienced Pereira, playing only his second major, to give McIlroy any chance of snapping a nearly eight-year major drought. He’s six shots out of second place, leaving the door open for a potential turnaround.

How they stand after Rd 3 (Selected scores): 201 Guillermo Mito Pereira (Chi) 68 64 69; 204 Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng) 68 69 67, Will Zalatoris 66 65 73; 205 Cameron Young 71 67 67; 206 Abraham Ancer (Mex) 67 69 70; 207 Seamus Power (Irl) 71 69 67;  208 Stewart Cink 69 68 71, Justin Thomas 67 67 74, Bubba Watson 72 63 73; 209 Sam Burns 71 67 71, Lucas Herbert (Aus) 68 73 68, Max Homa 70 69 70, Chris Kirk 68 70 71, Davis Riley 68 68 73, Webb Simpson 69 75 65, Gary Woodland 70 68 71; 210 Adria Arnaus (Spa) 72 68 70, Ryan Fox (Nzl) 70 70 70, Tommy Fleetwood (Eng) 71 70 69, Tom Hoge 66 74 70, Rory McIlroy (N Irl) 65 71 74

Others: 213 Shane Lowry (Irl) 70 72 71;  218 Collin Morikawa 72 72 74, Jon Rahm (Spa) 73 69 76; WD: Tiger Woods 74 69 79.

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