Rising US Star Will Zalatoris Takes the Lead at the PGA Championship

During the early throes of the pandemic, a skinny golfer named Will Zalatoris emerged as the curiosity of the golf world. He hit the ball impressively far despite a slight, angular frame. He kept finishing near the top of majors. He rose to the cusp of stardom so quickly he didn’t even have his PGA Tour card yet.

Now Zalatoris has put himself in the pole position to take his first tour event—and he would be a major.

Zalatoris, a 25-year-old American, enters the weekend at this year’s PGA Championship with a one-shot lead at 9-under par. He capitalized on more favorable afternoon conditions at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., to jump in front of a crowded leaderboard with a bogey-free round Friday.

Chilean Mito Pereira has sole command of second place at 8-under, one stroke behind Zalatoris, while a number of other big names remain in the hunt. Justin Thomas, the 2017 PGA Championship winner, is in third at 6-under. Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters winner, is alone at 5-under. And Rory McIlroy, who led after the first 18 holes, is part of a threesome tied at 4-under.

Tiger Woods will also play the weekend after entering Friday in precarious territory. Woods, playing just his second competitive tournament since his car wreck a year ago that left him with a severely injured leg, was 4-over after the first round—right on the eventual cut line. He visibly struggled through the first round as he fought obvious pain. Then he found himself at 5-over after double bogeying the par-3 11th in the second round before rebounding to make it to the weekend.

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy walk on the 14th hole during the second round of the 2022 PGA Championship.


Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Just a couple of years ago, Zalatoris was relatively anonymous and for good reason. In early 2020, he was ranked just 543rd in the world. If a golf fan saw Will Zalatoris, they may well have thought they ran into Adam Sandler’s caddie from Happy Gilmore.

That didn’t last long. He got into the 2020 US Open and finished sixth.

That was just the beginning of a run that established him as a force to be reckoned with in golf’s biggest events. He ended up second at the 2021 Masters and followed that up with an eighth place showing at the PGA Championship. Last month, he once again finished in the top-10 at the Masters.

Within a matter of just two years, he had finished in the top-10 of three of the four majors. He won millions of dollars. He also had never won on Tour.

That has been the one thing missing from Zalatoris’s resume despite repeatedly coming close. He has six top-10s already this season. He finished second at the Farmers Insurance Open in January when he lost in a playoff.

Now he is in the lead as he attempts to notch that first victory—at a major championship. And it will be up to the weather perhaps as much as him.

One of the things that the first two days at this major championship showed was how the wind could drastically affect the players’ abilities to attack this course. Many players in the morning Friday struggled when the stronger tastes made it difficult to control their shots. Thomas, three strokes behind the lead, was one of the notable exceptions.

Some of the biggest scoring runs, then, came among those who teed off in the afternoon. The top of the leaderboard was disproportionately stacked with those golfers. Zalatoris capitalized with a late tee time, as did Pereira. How the winds trend over the weekend could set up the leaderboard for potential volatility—or potentially favor the late starters again.

Zalatoris will be teeing up in the last group last Saturday. That’s because he has the lead as he enters the weekend chasing his first major championship.

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

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