‘He’s fearless’: Mito Pereira’s college coach speaks about the man leading the PGA

Long before Mito Pereira was the man out in front at the 104th PGA Championship, he was honing his craft at Texas Tech University.

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TULSA, Okla. — Mito Pereira is the man to beat at the 104th PGA Championship.

Despite blustery conditions at Southern Hills in Round 3, the 27-year-old holds a three-shot lead thru 54 holes in his first PGA Championship. It’s an impressive debut for Pereira, but according to those close to him, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

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“He’s not scared of anything,” said Greg Sands, head coach at Texas Tech, where Pereira played in his lone collegiate season in 2014-15. “He’s fearless.”

Sands took some time out of his day on Saturday to chat with us about the former Red Raider, and the path he took to the top of the PGA leaderboard.

Ed. note: This Q and A has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Zephyr Melton: How the heck did you convince a kid from Santiago, Chile to come to school in Lubbock, Texas?

Greg Sands: Well, we have a pretty international team — something like half our guys are international. But we also had probably the best Chilean player at the time, Matías Dominguez, who was a junior when I recruited Mito. So we had a fellow Chilean on the team, which gave us an inroad there. That was the main thing is that we could make the connection through Matías being a friend of his. So we were fortunate to get him to come over for a year and a half.

ZM: What was it about Mito when you saw him playing that convinced you that you wanted to get him on campus?

GS: Well, like I said, a lot of it was just through Matias. He told me what a great kid Mito was and he knew his story. Mito wasn’t particularly fond of going to school — obviously that kind of showed up in that he only stayed for a little while. He had a serious girlfriend back home, and he was very close to his family.

But really it was one of those things where I think he was intrigued by some of the great tournaments that college golf has to offer. One of those being the 2015 Big 12 Championship, which was at Southern Hills. Obviously it’s been redone since then, but a lot of the golf course is the same, and I’m hoping that’s helped him out some.

We had a great team when Mito was on campus. I think he was pretty homesick and wanted to go home, which turned out to be a great decision for him. But we were glad to have him on campus for the time that we did.

ZM: Are you at all surprised to see him having this sort of success on such a big stage?

GS: I guess yes and no. Yes in the sense that we haven’t had a Red Raider reach this level yet — being in contention at a major. So yes in that sense. But no in the sense that he has the mental capability to play well on this stage. He’s not scared of anything. He’s fearless. He’s paid his dues and worked his way up through the Korn Ferry. Even though he’s only been on Tour for a short time, I think he feels that he belongs and he sees his buddy Joaquin Niemann winning tournaments, and I think that gives him the drive and belief that he can do the same thing.

ZM: Were there any specific instances while he was at Tech that made you think, ‘Wow, he’s gonna be the real deal.’

GS: We knew he was really good. He’s just great at getting the ball in the hole. I remember coaching him in a tournament at Royal Oaks once where his up-and-down percentage was something like 80 percent for the week. And I watched some of the shots he hit around there, and at that point I knew he had a skill to just get the ball in the hole. At that moment, I knew he was really good and had the potential to be really good. And then on some of the ball-striking things, he’s always had skills that I would say have been in the category that have been elite.

ZM: How do you think his time at Tech prepared him for the next level? Maybe he got a little experience playing in some breezy conditions?

GS: It’s probably hard for me to quantify that. The learning experience you have at that high, high level, those little small things just start to add up and make a difference in your performance. You go play a schedule like we play and you’re getting to see the best courses in the country and see the best competition, there are so many small things that you pick up and help you believe in your game. Maybe in a small way his time in Lubbock has helped him in that category of being a good wind player.

ZM: So I assume you’ll be playing this afternoon and tomorrow?

GS: Absolutely. I’ll be watching as much as I can. I am driving to the Ben Hogan (Award) ceremony tomorrow, so I might have to listen to it on the radio. But I’ll certainly be following along.

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Zephyr Melton

Golf.com Editor

Zephyr Melton is an assistant editor for GOLF.com where he spends his days blogging, producing and editing. Prior to joining the team at GOLF.com, he attended the University of Texas followed by stops with Team USA, the Green Bay Packers and the PGA Tour. He assists on all things instruction and covers amateur and women’s golf.