Aided when gusting winds vanished in the afternoon at daunting Southern Hills, late-starter Zalatoris reeled off three back-nine birdies in a row and sank a seven-foot birdie putt at the 17th to finish 36 holes at Southern Hills on 9-under-par 131.
“I had the luck of the draw. There wasn’t any wind after the 11th hole,” Zalatoris said. “I made the most of it with some good shotmaking.”
That enabled 30th-ranked Zalatoris, last year’s Masters runner-up and the 2021 US PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, to grab a one-stroke lead over Chile’s Mito Pereira, who fired a 64 to stand second on 132.
“I guess shooting six-under wasn’t really the expectation, but here we are,” the 27-year-old from Santiago said. “Not going to change anything.”
Woods, fighting back after severe leg injuries in a car crash 15 months ago, overcame a double bogey at the par-3 11th with birdies at the par-5 13th and par-4 16th to shoot 69 and make the weekend on 3-over 143.
“I had to grind and go to work and I did and I made it,” Woods said. “It wasn’t pretty. I had to fight back. I’m not able to move like I did.”
The most beautiful shotmaking came from two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson, who matched the course record with a seven-under par 63 that included nine birdies, his most in any major round.
“It’s very nice. Don’t get me wrong. It’s an honor to be able to shoot 63 on any golf course. I’ll take it,” Watson said. “But I’ve got to look forward to tomorrow and see where I’m at and hit hopefully just as quality shots as I did today.”
Watson was fourth on 135, one stroke behind 2017 PGA winner Justin Thomas, who played in the most brutal of winds, and one stroke ahead of Rory McIlroy, the 18-hole leader who battled to a 71 to share fifth on 136 with American Davis Riley and Mexico’s Abraham Ancer.
“There’s a long way to go,” said McIlroy, expecting a change in wind direction for the weekend. “We’re going to see a completely different course. Everyone is going to have to adapt.”
Watson only missed matching the all-time low major round of 62 when he missed a 23-foot birdie putt at the 18.
“I gave it a chance,” Watson said. “But I didn’t want to three-putt so I didn’t give it too much of a chance.”
Zalatoris, who has four top-10 finishes in seven major starts, began his birdie blitz at the par-3 11th and made every putt he had inside 10 feet.
“Kept the momentum going with some good putts,” he said. “Really pleased.”
World number 100 Pereira, who missed the cut at the 2019 US Open in his only prior major start, took full advange of diminished afternoon wind to make seven birdies against a lone bogey.
“It was lucky to get that draw,” Pereira said. “I’ve had good days and bad days but everything I’ve experiencd has helped me to get here and play good golf,” Pereira said.
American Thomas fired a second consecutive 67.
“Very pleased,” Thomas said. “I stayed very patient… and I’m glad to have a good round to show for it.”
The biggest crowds, however, followed Woods, the 15-time major winner in his second comeback event after sharing 47th at the Masters last month, when walking 72 holes was an achievement.
“Hopefully this weekend I get a hot weekend, some tough conditions and you never know,” Woods said. “The mission is to go ahead and win this thing somehow.”
Woods struggled to a 74 on Thursday and for most of the Friday was flirting with the cut line as he battled alongside McIlroy, the 18-hole leader with an opening 65, and Jordan Spieth, trying to complete a career Grand Slam.
Spieth also shot 69 and stood on 141 after 36 holes, 10 off the pace.
The world’s three top-ranked golfers were grouped in a major for the first time since the 2013 US Open but all were over par overall.
Spain’s second-ranked Jon Rahm, the reigning US Open champion from Spain who could return to number one with a victory, shot 69 to stand on 142.
“I can’t ask much more of myself,” Rahm said. “It was a good day. It was good golf. Just tough.”
Third-ranked American Collin Morikawa, the reigning British Open champion, fired his second 72 to stand on 144.
Top-ranked Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, who has won four of his past eight starts, fired a 75 to miss the cut on 146 with two-time major winner Dustin Johnson. (AFP)