PGA Championship 2022: Will Zalatoris, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy playing for history entering Moving Day

TULSA, Okla. — It always takes a few days at majors before the heart of the tournament emerges, and the 2022 PGA Championship is no different. After 36 holes of grind at Southern Hills and two straight days of hand-wringing over sand consistency, length of grass on these slow greens and how the strength of the Oklahoma wind whipping through the course, several terrific storylines have emerged.

Will Zalatoris leads the tournament after shooting 66-65 over the first two rounds, and he’ll play with Mito Pereira, who is one back, going to the weekend. Each will be looking for his first PGA Tour victory, which is a monumentally difficult (not to mention rare) feat to accomplish at a major championship.

Zalatoris is the type of ball-stiker who can absolutely stick. That’s certainly not in question. The narrative around Zalatoris is whether his sometimes-shaky (to put it kindly) putting stroke can hold up on the low-oxygen final few rounds at the top of a major leaderboard. For the week, Zalatoris has yet to miss inside of 10 feet (18 of 18) and ranks first in the field in strokes gained putting. Surely, that wo n’t last, but it also might not matter because his ability from tee to green might make it completely inconsequential.

Pereira is a lesser version of the only man he trails. He’s tremendous from tee to green but he pairs that with a hot-and-cold short game. Pereira is trying to become the first Chilean to win a men’s major, but more importantly for him, he’s trying to win for the first time ever at this level. He and Zalatoris have one thing going for them, which is that historically, this has been a terrifically difficult place to play from behind at majors. All seven major winners at Southern Hills either had the lead or co-lead after 36 holes.

Still, this will be the biggest test of that statistical reality given the caliber of player that trails the top two guys.

This PGA is a bit different than last year when Phil Mickelson led after 36 holes. In that instance, the leader was the story, and that never changed as the weekend wore on. This year, however, while the two leaders are a headline with two days remaining in Tulsa, there are plenty of other storylines (including a few that just sneaked into the weekend) surrounding them. Let’s take a look at the six other most important narratives with two days remaining in the second major championship of the year.

1. JT’s big chance: This is probably Justin Thomas’ best shot to win a second major since his triumph at Quail Hollow in 2017. While he’s not the favorite, perhaps he should be after the way he flighted his ball and thought his way around Southern Hills over the first two days. Thomas’ wave was dealt the harder conditions by two strokes over Rounds 1 and 2, and he’s one of just two golfers that started late-early over the first two days who is in the current top nine on the leaderboard.

The feeling around Thomas is that he’s far too talented to be sitting on one major championship victory. The only two players in front of him have never won at all, and they’ll be on equal footing in terms of conditions for the duration. JT has had the look all week, and now he has the opportunity to move into the category of player reserved for Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka. Zalatoris and Pereira are playing for the PGA this week; Thomas is playing for a historical leap.

2. What can Rory summon? Friday was a disappointment for McIlroy, Thursday’s first-round leader. He could only muster a 71 on a day when both of his playing partners – Spieth and Tiger Woods – broke par. McIlroy, like Thomas, has a legacy that hasn’t been lengthened in a while. He decimated the field with driver in Round 1 but didn’t give himself any scoring opportunities in Round 2 — he only had two looks for birdie inside of 15 feet and made one of them. He’ll have to improve that approach play on Saturday and Sunday for a chance, but the upshot here is that he’s probably in the best position to potentially join JT in the final pairing on Sunday — if the top two fall off — in what would be one of the most-anticipated final round major duels in the last 10 years.

3. Tiger remains the proudest champion: While the early part of Woods’ career — in which he ripped people apart like the predator he was — provided thrilling entertainment, this edition is far more emotionally inspirational. On Friday, Woods gutted his way to a 69 that carried him to a weekend he probably should not have made. He’s now made the cut at the first two majors of the year, which is something none of Spieth, Scottie Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay, Dustin Johnson or Xander Schauffele can’t be able to say.

Tiger was fun as hell to watch in 2000 and 2005, but now he connects emotionally with an older generation. In 2022, as he makes cuts on nothing but stingers and resolve, his laborious effort to do the thing he once did best as well as he possibly can is the most relatable thing in the world. It was a joy to watch on Friday, and though he won’t win on Sunday, the last two days will be a celebration of what it means to carry yourself as an all-time great. As McIlroy said on Friday night, “He’s the ultimate pro.”

4. A third for Bubba? Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson has just three other top 10s in 55 major championship appearances and just one since he won the 2014 Masters (2018 Masters). He shot the round of the week so far with a 63 on Friday, a round in which he made two bogeys, played for the field average with his putter and did pretty much all his damage from tee to green. His nine birdies were a career-best in a major round, and his 63 tied a course record at Southern Hills. Watson, who sits in fourth after two rounds, probably won’t last. But if he somehow does make a run at major No. 3 at age 43, it would certainly change the way we think about his historical relevance. While he’s almost certainly already a hall-of-fame golfer, a win here would leave no doubt.

5. Redemption story: During the 2001 US Open at Southern Hills, Stewart Cink missed a putt from less than 2 feet on the final hole that would have gotten him into a Monday playoff with Mark Brooks and Retief Goosen. Now 21 years later (!), a 48-year-old Cink is T8 on the board and legitimately in the mix with 36 holes to go. It’s almost certainly not going to happen, but the story of Cink trading that nightmare in 2001 for a dream ending to his major championship career would be exceptional.

6. Cameron Smith lurks: The guy I’ve been eyeing all week is Smith. He followed his 68 on Thursday with a 70 on Friday, and while his T10 status on the leaderboard might not be impressive, he’s leading this field in approach shots and has gotten nothing out of a short game that’s normally either the best or among the best in the world. He has a 65 in him on Saturday, and if it happens, he could play his way into one of the final few pairings on Sunday afternoon.

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