U.S. Open 2017: Justin Thomas' shots on 18 to set scoring record will be remembered
Thomas broke Johnny Miller's U.S. Open record for score relative to par with a superb 9-under 63
ERIN, Wis. -- Justin Thomas grabbed his 3-wood on the tee at the 667-yard par-5 final hole at the U.S. Open. It was his 61st shot of the third round on Saturday at Erin Hills. He pumped it 330 yards off the tee onto the wet turf where it came to a stop just shy of a fairway bunker. Then he had a decision to make.
Thomas, who was at the time tied for the lead at 9 under, stood atop one of the innumerable rolling crests here at Erin Hills just ahead of his ball with his hands on his hips. He peered down the runway of a hole nearly half a mile long as playing partner Jonathan Randolph prepared to lay up from further back. Thomas couldn't have known it at the time, but he was staring into major championship lore.
The massive, sweeping green grandstands that blockade the 18th green from the rest of the world served as a backdrop for what would be one of the great shots of Thomas' life. He pulled a 3-wood and an iron, gently whipping them both back and forth next to his ball as Randolph walked. Which would he choose? He wouldn't actually go for it from here, would he? Challenging this left-side pin with 3-wood seemed impossible and potentially foolish on a 667-yard hole, but the crowd lining the 18th fairway roared when he swung it. They went mute when he grabbed his iron.
The Erin Hills faithful clearly thirsted for history so Thomas gave it to them.
Even though he had 310 yards to the hole and a 290-yard carry (!) with nowhere to miss to the left or behind the green, there was never any question about what he was going to do. There is no laying up with this one. What nobody knew at the time he was testing clubs is that Thomas was simply trying to decide which club to go for it with. The 2-iron or the 3-wood. He wrapped his fingers around that 3-wood again and did what Justin Thomas does: He hit the hell out of it.
Of all the memorable and historic 63 strokes Thomas took on Saturday in his record-breaking round, that 62nd is the one that will be replayed for the next decade.
It cleared 290 in the air with a slight cut, landed and rolled. Thomas yelped at it. It stared at the hole before scooting past. It came to a stop 97 inches from the cup. Two shots from 667 yards away to 97 inches. Thomas would have that for a record-breaking 9-under 63. The lowest score to par in U.S. Open history, the 31st 63 in major championship history and just the fifth 63 in U.S. Open history.
"I knew I hit it really well," said Thomas. "I had 310 [yards to the] hole, but it was downwind to where I knew if I hit it solid, I could definitely get it there. But I knew my miss, if I hit it off the bottom or got spiny, it was going to be in those front bunkers, which was fine. That was perfect.
"I still obviously needed to nuke it. But I just felt like I could get it up in the air enough to hold the green as soft as they were. And it came out nicely."
Let's pause here for a second. I'm not sure if I'll tell my grandchildren someday about who won the 2017 U.S. Open. But I'll sure as hell tell them the time Thomas went 3-wood, 3-wood to 8 feet for eagle on a 667-yard hole and the lowest round in U.S. Open history. In that sense, Thomas' third round could end up being as big as this tournament itself.
Thomas was lights out from the beginning of the day. He birdied the first two holes before a bogey at No. 4. Then he reeled off birdies on four in the last five holes on the front nine. A bogey to open the back left him wanting, but then it got special. He birdied the 12th, went par-par at Nos. 13 and 14, and stepped to the short par-4 15th playing just 288 yards. Thomas hit a 3-wood to 6 feet and said right after he thumped it, "Be as good as you look" to the delight of those watching on television.
He missed the 6-footer, which strangely cleared his mind.
"Yeah, 63 was never on my mind," he said. "This is terrible, but I was thinking, 'If I make this [eagle on No. 15], I birdie the last three, I shoot 62, all-time major record, and I can get that one down there, so that kind of ruined that."
But the birdie there still set the stage for a torrid close.
After a par at No. 16, Thomas walked in a birdie on No. 17 with the cocksure step of a kid on the brink of something spectacular. When Thomas is dancing toward the cup like he was on Saturday, it's a reminder that of the best players in the world, maybe only Rory McIlroy can match him heater for heater.
Thomas rode it home. He made 3s at six of his last seven holes including the last four with that eagle at the last. However, he said after the round that all he was going for on the 18th was a 4.
"That's all Jimmy and I were trying to do is give ourselves a best chance to make a 4," said Thomas. "Make 4, get out of there and post a great number those things are bonuses, you know? I wouldn't have been able to do that without that rain last night. So I guess I'm thankful for that."
Thomas sat on his bag while Randolph made a mess of the last. He had to wait a good five plus minutes as Randolph cleaned up his bogey. While he waited, Thomas sat on his bag and shook his forearms out. He said afterward he was famished. Maybe that distracted him from the task at hand because his six-foot exclamation mark never left the center of the cup. The Wisconsin fans chanted "J-T! J-T!" as the 24-year-old tipped his Titleist cap and soaked it all in.
"I knew it was for 63," said Thomas. "You've got leaderboards everywhere, and for the most part you usually have an idea what you're doing. I told Jimmy walking up there once I found out we had a putt, I said let's try to become a part of history here. He said, 'Yeah, let's do it.'"
One person who didn't expect to see that history today was standard bearer Jacob Dykstra, who walked with Thomas and Randolph for all 18 holes. The teenager was scoring in his home state a year after volunteering for this event. He was supposed to roll with Adam Hadwin and Andrew Johnston but somebody didn't show so they sent him out early. He was enthralled.
"It was amazing," said Dykstra of the 63. "He started off pretty hot, and we thought it could be something special. Then he bogeyed a couple holes, and the crowd kind of dispersed a little bit.
"He picked up steam on the back, and it was incredible. When he missed the eagle putt on 15 and made the birdie, we knew it was going to be a good round. We didn't think it was going to be 63 or anything."
Nobody did. Despite playing as the easiest hole on the course this week, there have been just five eagles in three days. The most famous one obviously coming from Thomas.
"I'm not sure when it's going to sink in or when I'm going to realize what I did," said Thomas. "I was blown away by the support that I got today and this week. It was really cool to be honest. They made me feel like they were pulling for me and helping me through that finish.
"The roars in a major in a U.S. Open are really tough to compare to anything. Just to hear all the people yelling my name and cheering me on between holes and in between shots is pretty special, so it's a lot of fun."
Thomas's post-round walk from the 18th green to the scoring cabin to sign a card that will end up in somebody's hall of fame had an air of unreality. Did Justin Thomas really just shoot the lowest round in U.S. Open history with an eagle walk-of from 310 yards away? He did, and it was even sweeter than it sounds.
As Thomas walked down the hill behind No. 18 and across the No. 1 fairway back to the reality of the fact that he had to follow up the greatest round of his life with another one on Sunday, it started to hit those in attendance that they had just seen. The pathways parted, and Saturday's hero waved and nodded as grown men gawked. One of them shook his head as he walked away.
"What a round," he said simply. "What a round."
What eventually happens on Sunday does matter. It does. But it also doesn't. Winning golf tournaments is a big deal, but the U.S. Open has been won 116 times by 85 different people.
But a 63 under the gun on a U.S. Open course on the weekend? Yeah, that's only been done twice. Johnny Miller and Justin Thomas. Justin Thomas and Johnny Miller. The man who did it in 1973 to take Oakmont by one over John Schlee was a little salty when asked about what Thomas did on Saturday.
Thomas said he thought about Miller a bit on the way in.
"I wish he was calling it just to hear what he would have said," said Thomas. "It's a tremendous honor to tie him."
It's a number that will live on: nine under -- at the U.S. Open. No matter how you feel about the venue or the rain or the scores, 63 is 63. It's only been done four other times in 117 years of this tournament. And when queried about what shot he'll remember from the record-breaking round, Thomas gave the only answer anyone will ever give.
"The 3-wood on 18," said Thomas. "That was pretty sweet."
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