TULSA, Okla. — Joaquin Niemann was beaming with pride as Mito Pereira, his childhood friend and fellow Chilean, moved confidently across Southern Hills with the lead in the final round of the PGA Championship.
“What he’s doing right now is what he’s been working on all his life,” said Niemann, 23, one of the sport’s budding stars. “He’s not afraid of anything. I can’t imagine him not winning.”
It was, in retrospect, the jinx of all jinxes.
Pereira, 27, could have gone down for eternity with names such as Woods, Nicklaus, and McIlroy, to name a few prior PGA Championship winners. Nursing a one-stroke lead heading into the 72nd hole, he was about to become a national celebrity in Chile, where golf is still a nascent sport and the country has never produced a major champion.
“The only thing they talk about in Chile is football (soccer),” Niemann said. “Golf is growing.”
Instead, Pereira is now known as the Chilean Choker. He lives in infamy with names such as Jean van de Velde and Phil Mickelson — authors of all-time meltdowns in majors.
Van de Velde is forever remembered for losing a three-shot lead on the final hole of the 1999 British Open thanks to an errant drive and a series of unlucky bounces. Mickelson, a six-time major champion, is also well remembered for losing the 2006 US Open after carding a double bogey on No. 18 after hitting his drive off a hospitality tent.
“I am such an idiot,” a stunned Mickelson said afterward.
Before Sunday, Mickelson’s loss was the last time that a player made double bogey on the 72nd hole to lose a major by one stroke. Pereira’s loss on Sunday was every bit as painful.
Needing only a par to seal his victory, Pereira will be remembered as the guy who carelessly used his driver off the tee. His ball rolled into the fairway creek, and, four shots later, Pereira was in for a double bogey. It not only cost him the lead, but a spot in the playoff, as he fell into third place behind Will Zalatoris and the eventual winner, Justin Thomas.
Pereira began the day with a three-shot lead, but shot a five-over 75. Had he used a 3-wood or iron off the tee on No. 18, it easily could have been a 73.
“I wasn’t even thinking about the water,” he admitted. “I just wanted to put it in play, and I guess I aimed too far right.”
Pereira’s losses suffered on one bad hole, or one bad decision, are almost unfathomable. He cost himself nearly $2 million in prize money — taking home $870,000 instead of $2.7 million. A longtime player on the minor league tours, Pereira’s lifetime earnings are $1.7 million.
The loss cost Pereira exemptions to the majors — five-year exemptions to the Masters, US Open, and British Open, and a lifetime exemption to the PGA Championship. This week’s appearance was Pereira’s second major, and the first time he made the cut.
It also cost him a five-year exemption to the PGA Tour. Pereira has three wins on the Korn Ferry Tour and one on PGA Tour Latinoamérica, but it took him six years to get on the Tour.
He also was about to be a national hero. His native Chile only has about 50 golf courses, and Pereira and Niemann are the first two golfers to make an impact on the international stage. Niemann is ranked No. 16. But Pereira, No. 100, was one hole away from becoming a phenomenon.
“You look back three or four years ago, nobody talked about golf,” Niemann said. “And now the whole country is watching TV right now, seeing Mito leading the PGA Championship. It’s going to be something huge.”
Pereira has a great backstory, too. A former child golf prodigy who quit for two years because of burnout, Pereira rediscovered his love for the game and grinded out six years on the minor league tours before breaking through this year.
Pereira narrowly avoided disaster on No. 17 when his drive barely landed over the water. But his fearlessness, or carelessness, worked against him on the 18th hole as he reached for his driver. Though 18 played as the toughest hole of the championship, Pereira had handled it well, carding par-par-birdie. His birdie Saturday was one of just 19 on the hole for the tournament, against 174 bogeys or worse.
Pereira put the same swing on his drive Sunday — a low punch shot with a left-to-right action to play into the bend of the fairway. This time, the drive rolled right into the creek.
“I’m really confident with that one. I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I mean, I wish I could do it again.”
Once his penalty shot landed 76 feet from the hole, Pereira could kiss the Wanamaker Trophy — and all that comes with it — goodbye.
“When that happens, it’s tough to take. You hope it’s not you,” said playing partner Matthew Fitzpatrick, who shot 3-over and finished tied for fifth. “Mito is a lovely kid. You definitely feel for him, and I’m sure he’ll have many chances again.”
Mickelson never won the US Open after letting it slip through his grasp in ‘06. Van de Velde was never heard from on the major scene again.
Pereira will forever be remembered for the 2022 PGA Championship — for the way one bad decision cost him everything.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.