Wednesday, July 6, 2022

2022 PGA Championship: Why Mito Pereira’s major heartbreak stings more than supernovas of the past

Mito Pereira was never supposed to be in the position he found himself on the 72nd hole of the 104th PGA Championship. Not only is he a rookie who has yet to win on the PGA Tour, he was making his PGA Championship debut and closed as a 175-1 longshot to win the tournament, as posted by Caesars Sportsbook on Thursday.  

But there he was standing on the 18th tee at Southern Hills on Sunday evening with a one-stroke lead and one hand on the Wanamaker Trophy.

What happened next was something you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy, let alone a plucky 27-year-old underdog.

Pereira’s tee shot found the penalty area, and try as he might to save the hole, he ended up carding a double bogey, thus squandering — or at least delaying for the foreseeable future — his major championship aspirations.

“Obviously sad to be here and not in the playoff, not make par, just straight win. On 18, I wasn’t even thinking about the water. I just wanted to put it in play, and I guess I aimed too far right. I just hit in the water,” said Pereira, who entered the final round as the 54-hole leader with a three-stroke advantage.

“It’s not how I wanted to end up this week. … Today, I was really nervous. I tried to handle it a little bit, but it’s really tough. I thought I was going to win on 18, but it is what it is. We’ll have another one.”

While Pereira’s collapse was reminiscent of Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot or Dustin Johnson at Whistling Straits, this one felt different.

That’s because it was different.

The two aforementioned star golfers were supposed to be there at the end. Mickelson was in possession of a PGA Championship and Masters at the time of his U.S. Open heartbreak. Johnson was a top 30 player in the world who had just contended two months prior at Pebble Beach only to experience agony of his own. They finished in the fashion of supernovas, stars that reached the end of their lifespans in those respective tournaments.

Pereira entered this week as the 100th ranked player in the Official World Golf Rankings without a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour in 2022. (He has since moved to No. 49 after a T3 finish at Southern Hills.)

Sure, there have been moments where we’ve seen his full potential. The 27-year-old was a Battlefield Promotion from the Korn Ferry Tour last summer, which is no easy feat. He was also a participant in the seven-man bronze medalist playoff at the 2020 Olympic Games.

There is no debate that Pereira is a magnificent ball-striker … but a major winner? No, not in a million years. Not at Southern Hills where Hall of Famers like Tiger Woods, Raymond Floyd and Hubert Green were victorious in the past. Not in the deepest field of the year during a stretch run of major champions that includes the top three players in the world: Scottie Scheffler, Collin Morikawa and Jon Rahm.

Yet for 98.6% of the week, Pereira looked like one. He entered the final round with a significant three-stroke lead, and despite some hairy moments Sunday, it never felt like the tournament was out of grasp for him.

As his peers’ chances dwindled under the pressure of playing for a major championship, Pereira made one clutch par save after another. It felt as if his final such putt — on the difficult par-4 16th — would be enough to successfully fend off a charging Justin Thomas and pestering Will Zalatoris.

Even if one wasn’t actively rooting for Pereira across the first 70 holes of the tournament, one could not help but give in to his underdog story as told extensively on the CBS broadcast through the eyes of fellow Chilean and close friend Joaquin Niemann.

Pereira’s birdie bid on the drivable par-4 17th came up one revolution short of adding some much-needed wiggle room in hindsight. He would have been two strokes ahead of clubhouse leader Thomas (and soon clubhouse co-leader Zalatoris). Instead, he settled for par … and moments later, lightning struck.

“I thought I was nervous the first day. 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,” said Pereira. “I mean, this morning was tough. I don’t know, I mean, I just played it through, and actually had a one-shot lead on 18, and that was pretty good and sad to hit it in the water. I mean, I wish I could do it again.”

I wish I could do it again.

All week, a quote from Padraig Harrington at the 2021 PGA Championship has been stuck in my head when trying to contextualize the struggles of Rory McIlroy in major championships. But coming back to it after Sunday’s events, it seems to fit Pereira — albeit in a different manner.

“As you gain experience, you lose innocence. I suppose, if you drew a graph, there’s a crossing point of equilibrium where you have some experience and a certain amount of innocence and enthusiasm,” said the Irishman. “As you get a little bit older and you get all this experience, on paper, people might think you get better with experience.

“But as I said, you’ve seen a few things that you know in your game that you probably never wanted to see, so you kind of lost that little bit of, I suppose, innocence.”

Maybe this major championship collapse stings more than those experienced by Mickelson and Johnson is because of that factor: Pereira’s innocence.

He was never supposed to be in this position. He was never supposed to experience the emotions he felt Saturday night as the 54-hole leader, Sunday morning as the favorite to win the PGA Championship, or Sunday evening as he walked off the 72nd green in eventual defeat.

That is a part of the growth of golfers and competitors.

While some learn from their mistakes in swing season tournaments or DP World Tour events, Pereira has no choice but to absorb the blunder he committed on one of golf’s biggest stages.

If Pereira ever finds himself in the same position where one revolution of a ball or one wayward swing will cost him a major championship, you best believe he won’t do it again.

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