TULSA, Okla. – The quiet of a major Sunday isn’t for everyone.
It’s 1 p.m., and the crowd is thinning out to go root on a rally. There’s reason to believe that the winner of this PGA Championship won’t come from these final two groups. Mito Pereira, the 54-hole leader, is the first player in 31 years to lead the PGA in his debut. His nearest challengers are relatively unproven, too. Southern Hills has historically been kind to frontrunners, but in this eclectic bunch there isn’t a Woods or a Price or a Floyd.
The jocular mood of the early rounds is gone. Players are warming up in silence, unwilling to defuse the dramatic tension. One by one, they head toward the carts waiting to whisk them toward the clubhouse, and before long, Pereira is the last man left, working alone in the short-game area, trailed by three cameramen, a few field producers and a sound technician. A Goodyear blimp idles overhead. Volunteers check their watches, sensing their shift is nearing its end. Only nine fans have stuck around, perhaps the only thing that makes this major moment feel like Pereira’s previous wins in Bogota or Raleigh or Greer. It's a visceral reminder of how lonely greatness can be.
“Go kick some ass today, man!” a man hollers.
That's the plan, at least.
A year after 50-year-old Phil Mickelson became the oldest major champion, here was another unlikely frontrunner at the PGA. Pereira was ranked 100th in the world, a 27-year-old Tour rookie making his second major start, a ballyhooed talent who split with his caddie two months ago and hadn’t yet recorded a top-10 this year.
That seemed to matter little at Southern Hills, where Pereira missed only seven greens the first two rounds, shot a sizzling 64 Friday and surged late in his third round just when it seemed like he was fading. It was the tournament of his dreams, finally. On Saturday night, he told reporters, “I’m hitting the ball just awesome.”
And it all looked familiar to those who have been a part of his journey from Santiago, Chile, to the precipice of major glory.
In 2014, Texas Tech coach Greg Sands had offered Pereira a scholarship, sight unseen, hoping the payoff was worth the risk of what was likely just a one-year rental. Pereira had been a junior prodigy but flamed out after only six months at the IMG Academy. Sands suggested that Pereira’s yippy putting had driven him into a dark place; others said he was burned out from his teenage years being solely focused on golf. Whatever the reason, it led to a two-year hiatus during a crucial period of his development.
“He had started living a parallel life to his friends,” said Matias Dominguez, his fellow countryman and a former teammate at Texas Tech. “He didn’t want to grow old and think that he missed an important part of his life. Later in your life and career, that’s going to show up if you’re missing something. You’ll regret what you’ve done, and your head won’t be in the right mindset.”
When he returned to competition, at age 17, Pereira seemed refreshed and possessed the same sublime game. “He started killing it again,” Dominguez said. Sands liked the swing videos Pereira sent and what he had heard from Pereira on the phone. It helped, too, that Pereira had received a glowing recommendation from Dominguez, who won the inaugural Latin America Amateur Championship in 2015 and was a rising senior on the Red Raiders squad.
“Sometimes you’ve just gotta do that and trust it,” Sands said.
And it was apparent early that Pereira had the goods. In his third college start, he fired a course-round 63 at Lake Nona. The next week, at Royal Oaks, he didn’t have his best stuff but still dug out a runner-up finish by getting up and down 80% of the time. Sands told his then-assistant coach Jeremy Alcorn, “That’s what it takes. He can be really good.”
Sands figured Pereira would stick around Lubbock for only a year, and he was right, the Chilean feeling the pull of family and a serious girlfriend (now wife), as well as a swing coach who told him he was ready. Still, Pereira’s limited time at Texas Tech proved beneficial. He added an array of shots while playing in whipping winds, and he competed on classic courses against the best competition. By the time he left school, Pereira reached as high as No. 5 in the world.
“We provided him an experience that he could put in the hopper to get better,” Sands said.
After turning pro, Pereira made all five cuts on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica and the following year finished third on the Order of Merit to earn his Korn Ferry Tour card. In this new era, it was an old-school promotion: no handouts, no freebies, each stop earned through strong play. Along the way Pereira discovered a mental coach, Eugenio Lisama, and also was buoyed by the success of another Chilean, Joaquin Niemann, who won on the PGA Tour at age 20. When COVID shut down the golf world in 2020, Pereira crashed at Niemann’s South Florida pad, seeing first-hand what it took to be among the world’s best. “That was huge,” Sands said, “because it moves the needle on a self-belief standpoint, knowing you’re on track and can stack up.”
Indeed, Pereira won three times during the Korn Ferry super-season and earned an instant promotion to the big tour last summer. “He has very high peaks, and then he also has some low periods where he has to get his mind and putting aligned with the rest of his game,” Dominguez said. “But once he gets there, he really is untouchable. I don’t know where his mind goes, but it’s some place where he’s comfortable and feels like he can do anything.”
That self-belief carried into this PGA Championship. Though he’d failed to seriously contend in any of his 10 starts this year, Pereira was statistically among the Tour’s best ball-strikers, ranking 21st from tee to green. Plus, he had a new man on the bag, Scott McGuinness, who had caddied for Scottie Scheffler for three years before parting ways last fall. McGuinness knew of Pereira’s pedigree and underwent an extensive interview process just to land the gig a few months ago.
“I knew I was going into something pretty good,” he said. “I didn’t know it was as good as what it is. He’s going to be a really good player.”
And in just his second major start, Pereira’s learning curve was accelerated. Staked to the surprising lead, McGuinness didn’t notice any change in his boss when he arrived on-site Sunday morning, but Pereira admitted that he was feeling the weight of history.
“I thought I was nervous the first day,” he said. “Then I thought I was nervous the second day. Then I thought I was nervous on the third day. But the fourth day was terrible. I mean, this morning was tough.”
It showed Sunday at Southern Hills.
As safe as the three-shot lead seemed midway through the front nine, Pereira never looked in command. He missed a string of fairways to close out his front nine, leading to two bogeys. He used all of the hole on 3-footers. He was warned for slow play.
Needing a good drive to set up a birdie opportunity on the 12th hole, he tugged his tee shot left and was forced to pitch out. Bogey. On the difficult 14th, he uncorked a terrible swing that put him long and left of the green, nearly onto the next tee box. Bogey. Facing a 10-footer on 15 that would have given him a much-needed two-shot cushion, he made one of his most timid strokes of the week.
“His whole game,” McGuinness said, “was just a little bit off.”
Still, Pereira led by a shot over Justin Thomas while standing on the 17th tee. With the tournament hanging in the balance, the final group waited for about 10 minutes at the drivable par 4. As Thomas’ 67 posted on the electronic leaderboard, Pereira snacked on a protein bar and took a few sips of water. The Goodyear blimp sat overhead, motor humming. With 302 yards to the flag, it was a perfect number for a stock driver – start it down the left side, then bleed it back toward the flag with the left-to-right wind – and Pereira executed the shot perfectly, leaving his ball just short of the green, about 25 yards from the flag.
As Pereira walked toward the green, a fan cried out: “Bogey, bogey, Mito! JT for the win!”
Clearly hearing the jeer, Pereira glared at the man, then shook his head and marched onward.
With a chance to silence the heckler, Pereira’s pitch shot finished about 12 feet below the hole. It was a straightforward look, just what he’d wanted. It was the kind of putt he’d buried countless times – as a world-beating junior, as a standout college player, as an up-and-coming mini-tour star and even earlier this afternoon, on the practice putting green, before he headed to the first tee.
This was his moment ... and he left it short.
“So close,” McGuinness groaned.
Now the pressure that had been bubbling all afternoon finally spilled over. In the third round, Pereira had ripped a bullet on 18 that had funneled down the left side and into perfect position. But four strokes from victory, he got ahead of himself on the downswing and squirted his tee shot right, his follow-through wild and unbalanced. Player and caddie both knew immediately it was trouble. “She was gone,” McGuinness said ruefully.
Pereira’s ball landed down the right edge, scampered down the slope and kicked into the creek.
“I’m really confident with that one,” Pereira said later. “I don’t know what happened.”
Behind the 18th green, there was initially some question whether Pereira’s drive had hung up in the thick rough or trundled into the water. Then the Jumbotron showed the CBS replay, and there was Pereira’s ball – wet. The crowd cheered. A playoff seemed inevitable, and all of a sudden, Pereira wasn’t guaranteed to be in it.
The final stages moved quickly.
Needing to sling his 190-yard recovery around the trees, Pereira’s third shot missed left of the green and dove into the Bermuda rough.
His pitch shot raced past the flag and onto the back fringe.
And his must-make 22-footer to get into the playoff that never should have been, well, he left it nearly 4 feet short.
After the closing double bogey, Pereira removed his hat and lowered his head, the first time all day that he hadn’t been in the lead. He hugged his playing partner, Matt Fitzpatrick, and trudged up the steep hill toward the clubhouse. On the way he walked past the glimmering Wanamaker Trophy and didn’t even steal a glance. Niemann, waiting behind the green, shifted quickly from celebration to consolation.
Pereira chucked his glove in the trash and, after making official his closing 75, seemed to comprehend the magnitude of his collapse. He leaned forward on a table and thumbed through his phone, stopping periodically to rub his face or stomp his foot. Finally, he emerged and put on a brave face for each of his media responsibilities.
“Obviously sad to be here and not in the playoff,” he said. “I finished third in my first major this year. I think I have to really hold on to that.”
He hugged his wife, his agent, his caddie. Up by the clubhouse, Niemann, Sebastian Munoz and Abe Ancer all were waiting, flanked by a Netflix crew of two cameramen who were eagerly grief-eating a painful defeat.
“He’ll be all right,” Niemann said while heading to his courtesy car. “He’ll learn, he’ll keep growing, and he’ll be good.”
About 400 yards away, Thomas – a major champion and 14-time Tour winner – was masterfully executing against Will Zalatoris. He played the three-hole aggregate playoff in 2 under par, on the heels of a Sunday 67, that allowed him to leapfrog a top six on the leaderboard that was both unproven and under duress. He already knew what Pereira didn’t – that he could handle the quiet of a major Sunday – and that was a harsh lesson to learn.
“One roll away,” McGuinness said, rubbing the back of his head.
“He was one roll away from winning a major.”