Cameron Smith
GolfPGA Championship

PGA Championship halfway report: Smith looks value to chase down Zalatoris

May 21, 2022June 10th, 2022

Matt Cooper reviews the first two days of action and looks ahead to who will be victorious come Sunday with his golf betting preview.

State of play

We knew the wind blows in Oklahoma. Even in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical named after the state the cast sing: “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.” It has blown this week, too, and to such an extent that the first two rounds were somewhat skewed in terms of scoring with the early-late draw playing the course an average of 1.94 shots better than late-early.

Chapeau, therefore, to Justin Thomas who led the tricky half with two laps of 67 for a halfway total of 6-under 134, good enough for solo third. He trails Will Zalatoris whose 9-under 131 leads Mito Pereira by a stroke. Bubba Watson is alone in fourth, one blow behind Thomas, with Rory McIlroy, Abraham Ancer and Davis Riley sharing fifth on 4-under.And Tiger Woods? His comeback continues. He shot a 69 to make the cut on the number, something the World No. 1 and Masters winner Scottie Scheffler couldn’t manage.

Stats

In the last 30 years, 27 of the eventual winners of this championship were sitting in the top 10 at halfway – and 20 of them were tied third or better. But fear not if your pre-tournament selections are further back. Padraig Harrington was T26th at this point in 2008, Collin Morikawa was T25th in 2020 and Martin Kaymer was T15th in 2010.It gets madder if you narrow the focus to major championships hosted by Southern Hills. There have been three US Opens and four PGA Championships, and in all seven the eventual winner was leading or sharing the lead after both 36 and 54 holes!

Game over then? Hand the Wanamaker Trophy to Will Zalatoris?

Not quite. There have also been two Tour Championships at the course – Tom Lehman maintained the trend and Billy Mayfair was second at halfway then leading after three rounds, while when Alex Cejka won the 2021 Senior PGA Championship he was also second at halfway and first 18 holes later. That narrows it down to Zalatoris and Pereira then, right?

There’s no doubt they are in a good position, not just on top playing a track that makes chasing difficult, but they even have a small gap between themselves and those behind. However, they are also yet to win on the PGA Tour – their tasks are still a huge one.

It’s also worth bearing in mind Greens in Regulation stats. This course wears a player down. Finding the greens is a tricky proposition and saving par when it happens is difficult too. The three winners in the 21st century (Goosen in the 2001 US Open, Woods in the 2007 PGA and Cejka) all ranked fourth for finding the putting surface.

Pereira currently leads the GIR rankings, followed by Thomas and Sam Burns, with Zalatoris, Riley and Tyrrell Hatton next.

The leader

Let’s just review the Zalatoris case. Leaders at this stage at both Southern Hills and in the tournament have a fine record. Players hitting lots of greens also thrive. That is a strength of his game and he is proving it again this week. He’s also in great form, both this year (five top 10s) and in the majors (four top 10s in his last five starts). He’s a course winner, too, in the 2014 Trans Mississippi Amateur, but that was an event that had the weekend rained off so the 36-hole scores determined the result (the flipside is, that makes him 1-for-1 at winning here when leading at halfway …).

Then there are the things he has said. He’s been inspired by seeing his friend Scottie Scheffler win a major because they share a similar form profile and he wants to emulate it. Of the major challenge, he said after his first round: “They’re hard. You’ve got to ball strike. I have the attitude that this is what I’ve wanted to achieve since I was a little kid and it’s kind of freeing. You only get four of these a year. They’re special and I don’t want to leave anything to chance.”

Against all this good stuff is the knowledge that he can be really quite frightening to watch over a short putt. But if he hits lots of greens that might not matter. Perhaps a bigger worry is that, for all he’s hit lots of greens, he’s done so despite some very ropey accuracy from the tee (he ranks 132nd for finding the fairways). After round one he called that situation “bizarre” and after round two admitted: “I got away with murder a few times for sure.”

Selection

I retain a faith in the belief that major winners, more often than not (and overwhelmingly so), have recent experience of contending in the three or four majors that went before. That’s another tick in the box for Zalatoris, and also Thomas and McIlroy. But I can’t see any great value in the price of that trio.

Instead I like a man who said after his opening lap of 68 that he really likes the golf course and that it reminds him of home. A man whose second circuit of 70 saw a lot of putts go close (and despite playing late he was giving himself plenty of chances). He currently ranks 24th for GIR and first for Strokes Gained Approach. He’s a two-time winner this year and he went mighty close in the Masters. True, he’s currently T10th on 2-under, but that’s only four back of Thomas in third. If that leading pair wilt, he can pounce. Step forward Cameron Smith at +2200 each way.