Will Zalatoris leads the PGA Championship. No, you shouldn’t be surprised
Will Zalatoris is contending at a major. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be. The 25-year-old zero-time PGA Tour winner has had a couple of solid back-to-back years — 13 top 10s in 39 starts — but he really comes to life during the major season.
This week’s PGA Championship is indeed one of those majors. And Zalatoris leads at its halfway point. He one-upped a Thursday 66 with a Friday 65 to give him a one-stroke lead over Mito Pereira with 36 holes remaining at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.
This is still just Zalatoris’ eighth career major start. He turned pro in 2018 and missed the cut at the U.S. Open that summer, but he since rattled off four top-10s in his next six majors, all of which have come in the last two years. He tied for 6th at the Masters last month, a year after he was the runner-up at Augusta National. Last year, he tied for 8th at the PGA.
“I’ve kind of had an attitude with the majors, especially since the Masters, where I wanted to enjoy the experience as much as I could,” Zalatoris said on Friday. “I don’t want to leave anything — looking back 20 years from now I don’t want to regret my attitude or anything like that. So I just make sure that after really every single shot I hit, it’s just, I don’t want to say life or death, but make sure I’m fully committed to everything that I do because we only get four of them a year.”
Zalatoris didn’t make a bogey on Friday. He birdied the opening hole and rattled off three straight birdies on Nos. 11, 12 and 13. Those three consecutive birdie putts were a combined 19 feet, as the Tour’s best ball-striker — not hyperbole, literally the best in Strokes Gained: Approach — was giving himself near kick-ins.
But that’s been the difference this week. For a player who ball-strikes among the elite, it’s his putter that has him leading this thing.
He ranks 185th in SG: Putting this season, losing nearly half a stroke a round to the field. This week? First. He’s gained an absurd 6.18 strokes on the field on Southern Hills’ tricky greens, which have received some criticism from pros. Friday’s greens weren’t cut overnight due to the high winds.
“I think it allowed us to be aggressive going back up hill,” Zalatoris said, “but at the same time I left plenty of 15 footers straight uphill short because I couldn’t believe that they were that slow.”
Zalatoris added his last birdie on 17, which put him out in front. In the seven previous majors at Southern Hills, all winners held at least a share of the 36-hole lead.
Zalatoris won once on the Korn Ferry Tour but is still looking for his first PGA Tour victory. He was asked on Friday how he gets his major confidence despite being winless on the big tour.
“Something Scottie Scheffler said the other day I think resonates a lot, where what made him become a major champion, he said that it was belief,” Zalatoris said. “I think that’s kind of the same attitude that any of us have out here to win, whether it’s a regular event, a Korn Ferry event, or a major. Maybe it’s a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude, I don’t know. But like I said, I think there’s a little bit of the aspect that they’re just such tough golf courses, it allows my ball-striking to do the talking.”