The 27-year-old from Santiago squandered a three-stroke lead, rebuilt it, then made back-to-back bogeys at the seventh and par-3 eighth holes before rescuing par with a 13-foot putt at the ninth to stay on 7-under at Southern Hills.
Americans Will Zalatoris and Cameron Young were one stroke back on 6-under after nine holes with England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick fourth on 5-under, all hot on Pereira’s heels in a tension-packed crucible as they sought a first major title.
American Justin Thomas, the 2017 PGA winner, made three birdies in four holes starting at the ninth to stand fifth on 4-under, only three back of Pereira.
Not since John Daly in 1991 has a player won in his PGA Championship debut, but 100th-ranked Pereira was attempting the feat after missing the 2019 US Open cut in his only prior major start.
Pereira, who quit golf for two years as a teen, could become only the third South American man to win a major title after Argentines Roberto de Vicenzo, the 1967 British Open champion, and Angel Cabrera, who took the 2007 US Open and 2009 Masters.
Pereira’s opening three-stroke lead vanished, starting when he lipped out for par from six feet to bogey the par-4 third hole.
Zalatoris made a five-foot birdie putt at the fourth, then reached the par-5 fifth green in two and tapped in for birdie to share the lead.
But Pereira sank a birdie putt from just outside three feet at the fifth to reclaim the lead alone at 9-under.
Then Zalatoris barely escaped disaster at the par-3 sixth after his tee shot went into bushes beyond the green. He took a penalty drop into a cart path seam, chipped to eight feet and curled in a bogey putt.
At the seventh, Zalatoris drove into the right rough, plopped into a greenside bunker and missed a 10-foot par putt to fall back where he started at three behind Pereira — then saved par from eight feet after bearly finding water off the tee at the par-3 eighth.
Pereira, meanwhile, hit a tree off the seventh tee on the way to a bogey, then was short of the eighth green and missed a 14-foot par putt, setting up his dramatic nine-hole putt to keep the lead.
Zalatoris, last year’s Masters runner-up, has top-10 finishes in four of seven prior major starts.
Young, 25, has three second-place finishes this season but missed the cut in his three prior major starts.
Fitzpatrick, a seven-time winner on the DP World Tour, hasn’t cracked the top-six in 27 prior major starts.
World number 17 Fitzpatrick, 27, and 30th-ranked Zalatoris, 25, are the top-rated players without a US PGA Tour victory. Not since 2011 has a player won a major for his first US tour title.
Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, who began nine off the pace, made a charge with four straight birdies culminating at the fifth hole, but a bogey at six and 10 straight pars before another bogey at 17 left him five adrift.
Spieth, Rahm well back
England’s Justin Rose and Tyrrell Hatton each shot 68 to share the clubhouse lead on level par 280 for 72 holes.
Three-time major champion Jordan Spieth, who could have completed a career Grand Slam with a triumph, fired a 69 to finish on 284.
Second-ranked Jon Rahm, the reigning US Open champion from Spain, would have overtaken Masters winner Scottie Schefflera for the world number one ranking with a victory. He shot 68 to finish on 286.
“It’s a bit of a consolation prize to play good, but just errors,” Rahm said. “Game is good. Swing feels good. So I’m not too far off.”
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