Survival

Survival of the Fittest

Southern Hills showed its teeth on Saturday, and now it’s about to get really interesting

By Michael Bamberger

TULSA, Okla. – We all know the Clapton version and maybe the one Sheryl Crow did years later, but no recording of the country standard “Tulsa Time” will ever capture get-out-of-Dodge desperation like Don Williams did in the song’s 1978 debut, words and music by Danny Flowers:

Livin’ on Tulsa time;
Livin’ on Tulsa time!
Gonna set my watch back to it,

’Cause you know I been through.
Living on Tulsa time.

Central Daylight, you probably know.

When play was done here on a chilly Saturday night, getting on half-past 6, the leader was Mito Pereira of Chile. He was at 9 under. You may be more familiar with his younger countryman Joaquín Niemann. Come September, they both could be on the International team at the Presidents Cup. The guess here is if Pereira can shoot 3 over, he’ll win this 104th PGA Championship, no playoff required. Yep, 6 under. That’s how hard this golf course – right on Lewis Avenue, one of Tulsa’s main drags – is.

The guy who shot a Friday 65, Will Zalatoris, shot a Saturday 73. He’s in a two-way tie for second, at 6 under. The guy who shot a Friday 63, Bubba Watson, shot a Saturday 73. Tiger Woods shot a 79 and withdrew. The lowlight for Woods was a triple-bogey 6 on the par-3 6th.

He came to the 6th tee in a chipper mood and only 1 over for the day. (Not bad! For a hobbling 46-year-old golfer with various mechanical parts who had to get up in the middle of the night to get ready for his 9 a.m. tee time? Not bad at all.) He left the green fuming. He signed his card and headed home.

If we may take a stab at channeling Mr. Flowers here and the 78 players who toured Southern Hills on Saturday: If I ever come back, it’ll be too soon.

Well, it’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. The town and its people and its main-attraction golf course are just too excellent. This is not official but for those of you into that whole save-the-date-thing:

Time: May 2030

Place: Southern Hills Country Club, Tulsa, Okla.

Event: The 112th PGA Championship

This is what Grand Slam golf is all about. A course where the holes curve, the greens heave and the pitch shots take all the skill a golfer has. This course was really good in 2007, when Woods won the PGA Championship, and in 2001, when Retief Goosen won the U.S. Open. It was good in 1995, when the Tour Championship was played here. But there’s something different about it now, at least in this reporter’s eyes. Now it breathes. Course architect Gil Hanse took a mighty and hilly piece of land, a crammed and old-timey routing, a set of magical-mystery-tour greens and breathed life into the property. It’s different.

Saturday’s weather helped. Cloudy and cool and windy and nasty. Football weather for the Sooners, really. The 6th hole was so hard it was a joke, and not a funny one. The hardest hole on a course with nothing but hard holes, and with long waits before the players could play. The 6th tee is hard by the 5th green and near the 3rd tee. There was a system of hand gestures at play, one group to another, to direct traffic and give order to the proceedings.

Some of the veteran caddies – Jim “Bones” Mackay, caddying for Justin Thomas, who is 2 under; Billy Foster, caddying for Matthew Fitzpatrick, who is 6 under – came to the tee with the previous group still on it, to see how the hole was playing. (Completely legal.) Very damn hard! It was uphill, into the wind, to a back-left pin protected by a bunker and a stream. Some players hit hybrids and fairway woods, though most hit the longest iron they carried, Tiger among them.

“Is that in the fucking water?” Woods asked his caddie, Joe LaCava, after hitting his tee shot in the murky creek, 25 yards short of the pin according to Shot Tracker on the PGA Championship site.

It was.

“How long is the fucking hole playing?”

All in, with wind and hill? Two-fortyish?

Woods wrote down 6. The field wrote down an average of 3.6. You came off the green with good news and bad news. The good news is that you were done playing the 6th. The bad news was that you had 12 more holes to play in your Saturday round.

And now it is Sunday. Sunday at Southern Hills Speedway. The players have been around the track three times. This ain’t LIV Golf. These majors are played over four rounds, on the best courses in the world, every man for himself. These are the weeks that made Tiger Tiger and Phil Phil. One of those two won’t be hoisting the heavyweight trophy. But, once more with feeling, Mito Pereira is leading by three.

On Sunday in Tulsa, on the demanding, windblown fairways of Southern Hills Country Club, Billy  Mayfair, a cherubic 29-year-old and a former U.S. Amateur champion, patiently ground out par after par, along with four bogeys and a birdie. His closing 73 was unspectacular, but it won him the tournament.

Typed words from the ’95 Tour Championship.

And now it’s 27 years later.

Mito is 27 and athletic. Last June, on the Korn Ferry Tour, Pereira won twice. An unspectacular 73 might be enough again.

So bilingual Mito is in Tulsa, and he’s coming through. Somebody’s gonna win this thing, and he’s the only player with a three-shot lead. He and Fitzpatrick will be on the 1st tee at 1:35 Sunday afternoon, Tulsa time. The opening tee shot is straight down a hill. The whole round is a climb.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com

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