In what has been a year of incredible performances from the best players in golf, Justin Thomas capped the first quarter with the best show of them all in his win at the 2021 Players Championship on Sunday afternoon. J.T. absolutely torched TPC Sawgrass over the weekend with a 64-68 over his final 36 holes that left him one better than Lee Westwood, who is now two strokes from having won both the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week and The Players this week.
Thomas started slow on Sunday, playing the front nine in 36 before finding a rhythm on the back with a 3-3-3 start. His ball-striking all weekend was sublime. How well did he play? On Sunday, with the tournament on the line, Thomas was 2 strokes worse than field average with his putter. He still beat the best field of the year.
His closing kick was a dramatic climax to a great week of championship golf. Holes 16-18 are a roller coaster of an ending at TPC Sawgrass. Here's how J.T. played them.
- No. 16: Running hook off the tee, huge, high second shot, two-putt for birdie
- No. 17: Middle of the green off the tee, 6-footer for par
- No. 18: Terrifying 5-wood running along the water, short par for the win
There wasn't a moment to breathe. For him or for anyone.
"It's a lot harder than when there weren't fans here," Thomas told Golf Channel after his round. "I fought so hard today. I stayed really patient. One of the best rounds of my life from tee to green. Total control of the ball."
At a course that is not exactly receptive to amazing scores, Thomas hit 31 greens in regulation in Rounds 3 and 4 and gained 11 of his 13 strokes on the field from tee to green over the final two days. It was J.T. at his club-twirling, shot-making best. When it's clicking, it's one of the 3-4 greatest symphonies in the sport.
To date this year, it had not been clicking. Thomas had not contended since a top 10 at the season-opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, a tournament he'll be more remembered for dropping a slur than anything else. But he found it between Round 2 and Round 3 this week and rolled to a pair of 32s on Saturday before closing Sunday with another one.
In a quarter that has had a bit of everything -- Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Collin Morikawa wins; Jordan Spieth's resurgence; Tiger Woods' car accident; the USGA's statement on distance; and Patrick Reed's rules kerfuffle -- Thomas' weekend reigns as the best performance of the calendar year.
Not only that, he joins Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller and Tiger Woods as the only golfers to win 14 mor more times on the PGA Tour since 1960.
And that was just the first quarter! We still have four majors, the Olympics and a Ryder Cup to go. One year after we got no show at all at The Players, J.T. backed up Rory McIlroy's lights-out performance as the 2019 champion with an equally-great one of his own. The golf was great over the first three months of 2021, and it was never better than what J.T. did for 36 holes on the weekend in winning his first Players Championship. Grade: A+
Here are the rest of our grades for the 2021 Players Championship.
Lee Westwood (2nd): It has been an amazing two-week run for Westwood that probably got him on the European Ryder Cup team and kept his major dream alive for a few more years. He did not hit the ball well Sunday, but the big takeaway for me is how easy the last few weeks have seemed for him. Obviously the golf courses are difficult, and he had to hit tremendous shots, but in the past when Westy has contended it has often felt Herculean. This time around, because he putted it so well, it didn't seem like it was always teetering on the edge. I hope he contends again at the Masters. Also, I find it hilarious that we all feel terrible for the guy who made $2.7 million in the last seven days and is playing Augusta National with his son on Monday. Grade: A+
Bryson DeChambeau (T3): I'm still shook over what happened on the 4th hole on Sunday when Bryson topped his tee shot into the water, borderline shanked his second and made double. What was that? Did he blackout? Without that bizarre 10-minute stretch, Bryson shoots J.T.'s number and is in a playoff. This week was a good reminder that Bryson's length, yes, raises his ceiling, but he doesn't win a U.S. Amateur, NCAA Championship and five times on the PGA Tour unless the game is complete across the board. He was very average with the big stick this week at TPC Sawgrass and still nearly won for the second week in a row. Grade: A
Jordan Spieth (T48): You look at the finish and see failure. I look at it and see somebody who didn't play well at TPC Sawgrass, even when he was the best player in the world. It's strange to say that at T48 finish solidifies the reality that Spieth is back to what he's going to be, but I think it kind of does, especially because he did all of his work from tee to green and was terrible around and on the greens this week. Grade: B
Rory McIlroy (MC): The quotes about DeChambeau on Friday night were as revealing as his performance this week. There is much work to be done for him before the Masters in a month. The good news is that when there has been much work to do in the past, he's always done it and always come out on the other side as one of the two or three best players in the world for long periods of time. It's a little deeper now, but the talent hasn't changed. Grade: F