TULSA, Okla. — If it’s a major championship then Will Zalatoris is in contention.
The 25-year-old Zalatoris is at it again in this week’s PGA Championship at Southern Hills, standing one shot out of the lead held by Rory McIlroy. Zalatoris shot a 4-under-par 66.
In his brief career, he’s already finished runner-up and tied for sixth at the Masters, tied for eighth at his only PGA and tied for sixth at the U.S. Open.
Why so good at the majors?
“They’re just hard,’’ he said Thursday. “You’ve got to ball-strike your way around them no matter which major it is. Even at Augusta where the greens are incredibly undulating, you can put yourself in some pretty good spots, and that’s where you’re going to get your best looks.
“I thought being the ball-striker I am, obviously it’s shown in the first six or so majors of my career. But on top of that, I think it’s the attitude of this is what I’ve wanted to achieve basically since I was a little kid, and it’s kind of freeing in a way.
“Obviously, it’s Thursday,’’ he went on. “My mind is nowhere near going to be meandering towards [winning], but that’s kind of my general attitude is you get four of these a year, they’re special, and I don’t want to leave anything to chance.’’
One thing that is left for chance is the 18th hole at Southern Hills, which is one of the toughest in major championship history with its length, uphill grade and meandering creek.
“I have to think the members must dread 18,’’ Matt Kuchar said after shooting a 3-under 67. “I try to envision how they play it. I don’t know that they can tee off enough forward to enjoy that golf hole. It’s hard. It’s a beast. It’s a tough driving hole, and then certainly having 200 yards kind of straight uphill is an awfully challenging approach shot. It’s a tough one.’’
Zalatoris said, “It was 490 uphill into the wind. That’s all you want. On top of that, it’s the toughest green on the golf course. You want to be able to go into that hole on Sunday, whoever is going to win this tournament, you want to have a cushion.’’
Few had a better start to the tournament than club pro Jesse Mueller, who holed out for eagle on his first hole, the par-4 10th.
“I hit a really good tee shot and then that pin placement was a gettable pin placement if you could hit it in the right spot,’’ he said after shooting a 2-over 72. “I was trying to hit it long and right and then hopefully it would draw back, and it happened to go in. What a start to my first-ever PGA Championship. Pretty amazing.’’
Mueller, whose wife is caddying for him and who works for Grand Canyon University, said he knew his shot was going to be close because of where it landed “but I didn’t know until I heard the reaction up by the green because second shot is kind of elevated. Once everyone started to cheer it was one of those cheers where you know it went in. That was pretty special.’’
The early leaderboard was a fascinating one, with John Daly and Y.E. Yang sharing the top of the board in the morning at 2-under. Daly, who won the 1991 PGA and is using a cart because of a chronic bad knee, finished with a 2-over 72. Yang, who famously took down Tiger Woods to win the 2009 PGA, finished 1-over 71.
The winner for the best turnaround round of the day was Aussie Cam Smith, who was 2-over par through eight holes and finished 2-under for the day.
“I guess it did kind of change there, just a little bit of a mental reset,’’ the reigning Players champion said. “I felt as though I’ve played some pretty good golf on my front nine, but unfortunately a couple times with gusts of wind and stuff like that, you can make some pretty quick bogeys and doubles around here if you’re not careful.’’