CHARLOTTE – In a performance that may have proved he has uncanny spiritual abilities, Justin Thomas further confirmed that he’s one of golf’s special talents.
Thomas fired a 3-under 68 on Sunday at the PGA Championship to earn a two-shot victory at Quail Hollow over Patrick Reed, Louis Oosthuizen and Francesco Molinari. At 24 years old, Thomas earns his first major championship.
“I felt like I had the game to get it done,” Thomas said.
That fact has hardly been in doubt for some time. Thomas was a star back to his junior days, winning three times on the prestigious AJGA and earning Junior All-American honors on the circuit twice. He then moved on to Alabama, and won the Haskins Award Presented by Stifel … as a freshman.
He left after his sophomore year and a team national championship, and the outside expectations were high. But Thomas never gave in to the crush of pressure. He won on the Web.com Tour in 2014 and cruised through to the PGA Tour, where he won early in his second season (at the CIMB Classic in November 2015).
But Thomas, of Goshen, Ky., really accelerated his play in 2016-17. The 24-year-old won three of five starts from October to January, the last of which was a seven-shot romp at the Sony Open that started with an opening-round 59.
“He’s pretty amazing,” said Kenny Perry, a fellow Kentuckian who has known Thomas since the young star was a teenager, in January. “He’s a superstar.”
That line was on point, if not prescient. Is he the superstar in the game? Well, no. Not yet, at least.
Thomas now has five PGA Tour wins, with four of them coming this season. That 2016-17 total beats everyone in golf. But Jordan Spieth, a good friend who hung around the 18th green to watch Thomas close out after he failed to earn the Career Grand Slam in a T-28 showing at 2 over, still has him topped by two majors and six Tour wins overall, and Rory McIlroy (T-22, 1 over) is still the leader of the current crop when it comes to majors with four. (Side note: McIlroy hasn’t won a major in three years, and his 2017 might be over.)
Heck, Brooks Koepka captured his first major at age 27 earlier this year, while PGA Championship contenders Hideki Matsuyama (who tied for fifth at 5 under) and Rickie Fowler (also T-5 after four straight birdies on the back nine briefly put him in contention) are always a threat to nab their first major.
Thomas has been firmly in place among this stunning group of young stars, but he was desperate to climb the ladder; jealous that he wasn’t winning majors like some of his quicker ascending peers.
“There’s no reason to hide it,” Thomas said. “I would say anybody, they are jealous that I won. I was jealous that Sergio won (the Masters); that Brooks won (the U.S. Open); that Jordan won (the British Open). I wanted to be doing that, and I wasn’t.”
It’s fitting, too, the manner in which Thomas earned his first major title.
The Kentucky kid is a player of hot flashes, certainly a high talent, but also a streaky one that is nearly unmatched in the ability to put together electric runs. The 59 speaks to that, as did a third-round 63 at this year’s U.S. Open. (That one also came with a closing eagle.)
But could one of these scorching bursts bring Thomas a major championship – more known for being earned through a plodding approach?
Thomas proved his methods could mesh with a major title.
The streaky player entered the tournament in a lull, having missed three straight cuts before a tie for 28th at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (a no-cut event). Nothing went to dispel the notion of the struggles continuing when he opened at Quail Hollow in 2-over 73.
Then, his hot flashes started to return. Six birdies arrived in a second-round 66 that moved him from a weekend of morning tee times to firmly in the hunt at five shots back.
The nonchalant twenty-something proceeded to follow up with a 69, using what he referred to as his “B or C” game, to sit two shots back entering Sunday.
If Thomas’ performance wasn’t overwhelming to that point, his mental process sure was. Thomas said he had an “unbelievable calmness” the whole week and all but predicted his ensuing victory Saturday night.
“I truly felt like I was going to win,” Thomas said. “I remember my girlfriend was supposed to fly out at about 7 (p.m.) and I was like, ‘You need to change your flight to later, because I don’t know, I just feel like I don’t want you to miss this. I feel like I’m going to get it done.’ ”
Good thing she obliged.
Beginning the final round two shots back of Kevin Kisner, Thomas opened the day bogey-birdie-bogey to fall three behind. Maybe his vision wasn’t to be after all.
Thomas, though, exhibits more patience than his ups and downs would imply.
“He was very smart, very grounded,” Perry said in January. “When he asked me questions as a teenager, he always wanted to know how to practice, what I think about golf shots, golf courses, how to get around a little bit on the Tour. He picked it up fast.”
So, Thomas didn’t fret.
In fact, his bogey at No. 1 came after holing a 14-footer. It was the first turning point.
“The putt on No. 1 was pretty big,” Thomas said. “Starting with a double there would have been pretty terrible.”
But his ability to incite electricity on the course wouldn’t emerge until hours later. Then it came with a fury the rest of the field couldn’t handle.
Thomas predicted it, too, telling caddie Jimmy Johnson in the middle of the round that “something good’s going to happen.”
He started proving himself right by burying a side-winding 36-footer for birdie at No. 9 that got him to within one.
“I had a feeling I was going to make it,” Thomas said.
Just a hole later, he topped himself.
A wild drive left actually bounced off a tree into the middle of the fairway, only after Thomas implored for the ball to “get lucky” and beseeched the tree to spit it out. He added on a “please” for good measure. It all worked.
“I told Jimmy, ‘That’s why you ask,’ ” Thomas said.
The lucky break allowed Thomas to go over the green in two, and he chipped up to 8 feet.
The crucial birdie putt, to move back within one of Matsuyama after the Japanese player birdied the hole, was supposed to go right at the end, but it didn’t. At first.
The ball ended on the left lip and hung there for quite a few seconds, to Thomas’ dismay. Then he tried to help himself out.
“I threw a little fit to try to see what would happen,” Thomas said.
Again, the golf gods listened, as Thomas’ ball decided to drop in the cup, a birdie, if a belated one, and the moment of the tournament.
A hole later, Thomas was in a five-way tie for the lead after a Matsuyama bogey, and then all by himself when his compatriots faltered.
He showed no mercy by making it a two-shot cushion via a birdie chip-in at No. 13.
“Probably the most berserk I’ve ever gone on the golf course,” Thomas said.
Now, it was just a matter if Thomas could hold on. Reed was charging hard and several others lurked on the edge. It didn’t help Thomas’ cause when he parred the benign 14th and 15th holes, and was struggling as he came to Quail Hollow’s infamous “Green Mile.”
He batted it around up the first of the stretch’s monstrous three legs. With his lead down to one as he faced a 6-footer for par at 16, Thomas could’ve been consumed by the pressure of the moment.
Instead, he buried the putt and went right at a treacherous pin at the water-shrouded par-3 17th, knocking his tee shot to 15 feet.
“I’ll never forget that vision in my head,” Thomas said. “That was one of the best golf shots I’ve probably ever hit in my life.”
When Thomas rolled in the birdie putt to move to 9 under, he all but sealed the win.
He would enter the final hole two ahead, and was three shots clear when Kisner posted a bogey at 16. By that point, it hardly mattered what Thomas did up the closing hole.
He hit it short of the green from a fairway bunker, chopped his third to 25 feet and two-putted for an easy bogey, his 68 and an 8-under 276 total.
Only a Kisner hole-out eagle at 18 could force a playoff, a dream that came crashing down when the 33-year-old hooked his approach in the water. The 54-hole leader would double bogey and plummet to a tie for seventh at 4 under after that final-round 74.
Thomas’ first major coming at a PGA Championship fits in another way. Both Thomas’ dad, Mike, and his grandfather, Paul, have been longtime teaching professionals – the backbone of the PGA of America, which runs the PGA Championship.
“For me, the PGA definitely had a special place in my heart,” Thomas said. “For this to be my first one and have my dad here, and I know grandpa was watching at home. I was able to talk to him and that was pretty cool.”
The younger Thomas never lacked the ability to win a major when it came to physical talent. It was on the mental side where he felt he could still grow.
He’s not entirely wrong, spiritual clairvoyance and whatever respect he has from Perry aside. As “streaky player” would imply, Thomas has been prone to valleys that are no joke. He followed up his three-win stretch with a run of 14 events where he didn’t post another and missed six cuts.
It was what appeared to be his most nondescript round, his third-day 69, that Thomas was most proud of then this week.
He invoked Tiger Woods after that performance, noting the 41-year-old used to win tournaments by five or six without his best stuff.
Thomas may not be that good, but it was an attitude he espoused Saturday that he used in no shortage in finishing things off a day later.
“I like to think that I’m mature now and I can manage an under-par round when I don’t have my best stuff,” Thomas said after his third round. “I think that’s why I feel like I’m ready to win a major championships now versus last year, I probably didn’t have that.
“You are going to have a day, usually at least a day in the tournament where you don’t have your best. You are not hitting it well. It’s what you can do with it.”
He’s figured it out, and now it’s a major and three other wins this season.
That’s probably a good thing for golf, as Thomas has never been adept at losing. Father and son often played for a dollar in the evenings of Justin’s adolescence and when the young boy lost, it wasn’t pretty.
“It was pretty heated out there,” Thomas said. “And I’m a pretty sore loser, so I did not handle it well when I lost and had to give up a dollar.”
If a dollar meant that much, it’s a wonder he played with so much calm with millions on the line.
Of course, this is not the end but a likely beginning. The season isn’t over yet. Thomas has to be the favorite for player of the year honors, and that means his quest for glory this season is far from complete.
When queried about goals this season, Thomas wasn’t ready to rest on his laurels with the Wanamaker Trophy in hand.
“Let you know when the year’s over,” Thomas said.
Watch your backs, Jordan and Rory. A new superstar is born.