Justin Thomas Wins the P.G.A. Championship, His First Major Title
Justin Thomas yearned to win a major, any major. Competitors can’t be choosers. But the P.G.A. Championship, the major that celebrates largely unheralded club professionals like Thomas’s father and grandfather, had added luster in his eyes.
Thomas might have followed his forebears into the teaching side of the game if not for the serendipitous arrival of the P.G.A. Championship to his hometown, Louisville, Ky., in 2000. An impressionable 7-year-old, Thomas was introduced to the chill-inducing cheers of golf at its highest level and the jaw-dropping peak excellence of Tiger Woods, who won the tournamentwith a game and an aura that captivated Thomas.
“Being at the P.G.A. that week, and just hearing the roars, and just hearing everything, and what Tiger was producing out there,” Thomas said. “I mean, him and that week was the reason that I was like, ‘O.K., this is really what I want to do.’”
Thomas was speaking Sunday night at a podium at Quail Hollow, as he stole glances at the shiny Wanamaker Trophy on the table in front of him. It hurt to watch his good friend Jordan Spieth win the Masters, then the United States Open and then the British Open, and not break through himself. Thomas’s best finish in a major was a tie for ninth at this year’s United States Open, until Sunday.
Then it was finally was his turn. He closed with a gritty three-under-par 68 on a Quail Hollow course that was tougher to tame than a bucking bull. With a 72-hole total of eight-under 276, he finished two strokes ahead of the runners-up: Francesco Molinari and Patrick Reed, who both closed with 67s, and Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion, who posted a 70.
A week that started with Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama chasing history ended with Thomas reaching a sublime family milestone.
“I want to try to win every major, but at the end of the day, this was really cool,” Thomas said, adding, “It’s just a great win for the family, and it’s a moment we’ll never forget.”
Thomas’s father, Mike — his first teacher — was one of the first to congratulate a dazed Thomas as he walked off the 18th green after an anticlimactic bogey.
t capped a round that began with a harrowing bogey. Playing in the next-to-last group with Matsuyama, Thomas hit a drive on the par-4 first hole that found a bunker, as did his next shot. He had to make a nervy 14-footer to salvage a five.
“Through four shots on that hole, I pretty much couldn’t have drawn up a worse start,” Thomas said, adding, “Starting with a double there would have been pretty terrible.”
Thomas, 24, knows how quickly a round can unravel title hopes in a major. After vaulting into contention at the United States Open with a third-round 63, he thrice three-putted on the final front nine to fall hopelessly behind the winner, Brooks Koepka. At the British Open, Thomas carded a second-round 80 and missed the cut.
But he learned from those disappointments. He figured out how to conserve his energy before a late-afternoon Sunday tee time and how to be patient in the wake of wobbles. On Sunday, Thomas cashed in on all that hard-earned knowledge.
He made a bounce-back birdie at the par-4 second. He did not get frustrated when his par putt at No. 3 burned the edge of the cup, or when he just missed a birdie at the fourth, or when another birdie putt grazed the edge of the hole at the fifth.
He looked really calm,” Mike Thomas said. “I told my wife on 7-8-9, you could just see his look, he was like, ‘You know, I’m very comfortable doing this.’”
Thomas birdied the seventh, ninth and 10th holes — the last on a putt that hung on the lip for more than 10 seconds before falling — and found himself in a five-way tie for the lead with Molinari, Matsuyama, Kevin Kisner and Chris Stroud. One by one, the other players fell away. When Thomas holed a chip from the fringe for a birdie at No. 13, he suddenly found himself ahead by two.
“I just stayed patient and knew scores were not going to be crazy low,” Thomas said. “And that chip-in on 13 was huge.”
Thomas played the three final holes at even par Sunday, and one over for the tournament. After making a birdie at 17, he nearly choked on a handful of granola that he had tossed into his mouth. The more nervous he got, he said, the more food and water he consumed. But down the stretch, Thomas never appeared in danger of coughing up the lead.
“I just had an unbelievable calmness throughout the week, throughout the day,” said Thomas, who was so confident he insisted that his girlfriend change her 7 p.m. flight out of Charlotte on Sunday so she wouldn’t miss a celebration.
“I truly felt like I was going to win,” Thomas said.
The victory was Thomas’s fourth of the season. The other member of his twosome, Matsuyama, 25, may have failed in his bid to become the first Japanese player to win a men’s major, but he has won six times worldwide since Rory McIlroy’s most recent title, at last year’s Tour Championship. Spieth has won four times in that span.
McIlroy, 28, punctuated a quiet week with a 68, his first sub-70 round of the tournament, and then said a lingering rib injury — a spasming left rhomboid muscle, to be precise — could sideline him indefinitely.
Spieth, 24, who fell 10 strokes short in his bid to become the youngest player to win all four majors, started the week of this tournament by trying to set straight everyone who was ready to proclaim the next 20 years on the PGA Tour a two-man race between him and McIlroy.
“It’s not two of us,” Spieth said. “It’s really eight to 10 right now.”
When the players say that the tour’s talent stream is scuba-dive deep, they are not referring just to the under-30 set. Stroud, 35, who began the day tied for second with Matsuyama, one stroke behind Kisner, carded a 76 to finish tied for ninth. Two weeks earlier, he had been in danger of losing his tour membership privileges.
In his first 18 tournament appearances in the wraparound season, Stroud made roughly $466,000. At last week’s Barracuda Championship, his sixth start in six weeks and his 290th since he joined the tour in 2007, Stroud secured his first victory and earned $594,000 — as well as the last non-alternate spot in this field.
The difference between contending for a major title and being consigned to golf’s minor tours, Stroud said, is “one putt a day, basically.”
But little seems to separate the younger contenders — on or off the course. As Thomas left the 18th green and made the long walk toward the scoring area, he passed a receiving line that included Fowler, Spieth and the 27-year-old Bud Cauley, a teammate of Thomas’s at the University of Alabama. Spieth embraced Thomas and told him, “It’s so awesome.”