The inevitable rise of Justin Thomas reaches its apex with a PGA Championship
The young American bagged his first major championship to cap a historic season at the age of 24
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Justin Thomas shrugged. He had just left an 8-foot birdie putt on the lip of the cup on the par-5 10th hole in his final round at the 2017 PGA Championship. It somehow didn't drop so he -- and the mass of fans ushering him home at Quail Hollow -- waited. He walked toward the ball. Then he stopped and looked at it some more. How was it still sitting there?
Then it dropped for a four, and suddenly Thomas was grasping for the lead at the final major of the year with Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama simmering around him.
Thomas's drive had bumped a tree on that 10th hole and somehow ended up in the middle of the fairway. Two breaks on one hole, and he closed it with a birdie. Thomas turned to a group of media members leaning against the TV tower at the back of the green and re-enacted the famous Michael Jordan playoff shrug as if to say, It's in the cards. It is inevitable.
He said he felt that, too. That's the thing about the great ones. Their mindset is that greatness and achievement is preordained. All they have to do is go out and fulfill it.
"I remember my girlfriend was supposed to fly out at about 7:00 [last night] 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,' " Thomas said.
"She's the first person to tell you that I don't want to talk about golf when I get in that situation. So I don't know, I just was very confident."
Thomas played the next eight holes as sensationally as you can play eight holes in only 1 under par. Then he won a tough 99th PGA Championship by two strokes over Reed, Francesco Molinari and Louis Oosthuizen.
Coming home was anything but boring, though, which is on brand for how Thomas swings and plays. He chipped in for birdie at No. 13 and threw a roundhouse punch pointed at the thick of a Charlotte crowd that wanted more.
"That chip-in on 13 was probably the most berserk I've ever gone on the golf course," Thomas said. "I'm kind of interested to see how I looked for that. Yeah, it was nice."
He followed that with pars at Nos. 14-16 and then walked to the 17th, which played to a heavy 223 yards on Sunday. The crowds at Quail Hollow oozed into the final few holes -- as is normally the case at major championships -- and Thomas was about to decide the tournament. He hit the purest 7 iron of his life and twirled it so hard I was afraid the grip would come unwound.
"That was one of the best golf shots I've probably ever hit in my life," he said. "It's tough, because when you get in those moments, that adrenaline, it's so hard to take something off of a club.
"I hit a stock 6-iron at home 200 yards, and I never even thought about anything but a 7. I'm like, 'Aim it just inside the right edge of the green, put it back in the stance and just swing at a 7, because it's not a position to try to finesse something.' You're pumped up, you're feeling it, and you're kind of not full bore, but you want to swing at something."
It ended up 15 feet from the hole, a shot he buried for a birdie. It was all over but for the drinking of beer from the Wanamaker Trophy.
After a bogey on No. 18, which cost him nothing, Thomas walked off the course and into the arms of his father. Mike Thomas, a PGA professional, walked inside the ropes with us for most of the back nine. Pops told son that his Sunday afternoon was "f---ing unbelievable." That's a fair assessment. Thomas had just touched off (at least) a four-win season that included a 59 at the Sony Open -- -- and a ... as well as his first major. He is in all likelihood going to be the PGA Tour Player of the Year when all is said and done.
Thomas might not be a household name in the same way as Sergio Garcia or Jordan Spieth -- other major winners this year -- but there's a reason everyone is timetamping this season of winners including those two, Brooks Koepka and now Thomas. It has been an elite few years of major winners, and Thomas is a star at the age of 24 with potential to become a superstar in the next few years.
The future of American golf in the post-Tiger Woods era has fully arrived, and damn, it's pretty good.
Joining Thomas' dad Mike were Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Bud Cauley. They all hugged J.T. in muted fashion because Kevin Kisner was still on the course, but they all knew. Spieth might have been more excited than Thomas. He signed autographs on the march to the scoring tent and pumped his arms wildly as he crossed the bridge to the practice putting green.
Thomas' trajectory as an amateur golfer always pointed to this. Not necessarily the 2017 Wanamaker Trophy, but his pedigree was as accomplished as it gets at nearly every level of golf. He won college golf's Heisman award (the Haskins Award) as a freshman. He won a national championship. It all pointed toward something like this. Thomas' junior resume was as good or better than even that of Spieth, the young American golfer to whom he is most often compared (ad nauseam, I might add).
Thomas has talked in the past about how it frustrated him internally when Spieth found success at the majors and he didn't. How could it not? He's been more or less equivalent with the guy for his entire career and all of a sudden Spieth is being anointed as the next great thing in golf. That would irk anyone, but Thomas let it drive him, too. He discussed that again on Sunday.
" 'Frustration' probably isn't the right word," Thomas said. " 'Jealousy' definitely is. I mean, there's no reason to hide it. I would say anybody, they are jealous that I won. I was jealous that Sergio won, that Brooks won, that Jordan won. I wanted to be doing that, and I wasn't.
"There's only four of them in a year, and to be one of them, a major champion, is really cool. It's just nice to have one, you know. But at the same time ... it was weird but it kind of calmed me down this morning. Like I said, I was confident, but ... I was thinking about it.
"I was like, 'Man, there are some unbelievable players out here that have only won one major and it took them a while to do it. There's no reason for me to hang my head today. If I give it all I have, if I stay in the moment, stick to the game plan and don't give any shots away for mental mistakes, and I don't get it done, then I don't.'
"But for some reason that calmed me down, knowing that a lot of other players haven't done it. To win a major at 24 is pretty cool saying it. Yeah, obviously it was an unbelievable week and experience."
It certainly is. Thomas joins Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Rory McIlroy as the only golfers to have won one at this age. That is some immense company, but again, this has always been the general direction of Thomas' trajectory.
So now we have eight months until the next major in April and the Masters. Eight long months. But Sunday at Quail Hollow was an exclamation point that not everyone saw coming. On a dogged week in the heart of North Carolina that looked so long as if the major season would end with a puff and not a bang, Thomas took over and delivered the goods.
He might not have the score to show it, but from the ninth hole on, Thomas could not have played more exciting golf.
"It was a crazy day," Thomas said. "Had to be an unbelievable watching today in terms of spectating and sitting at home watching on TV."
Thomas capped it off when he walked to the trophy ceremony. He strutted through a group of media members as Spieth slapped him square on the butt. He turned to my pal Chris Solomon of No Laying Up and told him, "I told you I'd win a f---ing major this year."
It was in the cards. It always is for the great ones.
When we got on the media bus Sunday morning, I turned to a colleague and said, "Man, I'm ready for this thing to be over." It had been three days of slogging golf that had given us an uninspired top of the leaderboard. It was hotter than the face of Dustin Johnson's driver, and it had been eight consecutive months of golf every single week.
Then Justin Thomas bogeyed the first, and the tournament dragged. Then Justin Thomas birdied four of the next nine to inject himself into the soul of the tournament. Then Justin Thomas shrugged. Then the inevitable came to fruition.
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