Justin Thomas breaks out of pack at 99th PGA Championship to win first major title
CHARLOTTE — You know what they say, ’round these parts: The PGA Championship doesn’t start ’till 5 p.m. on Sunday. A little before 7 p.m. this mad-dash of a golf tournament was over, with Justin Thomas — winner of four previous Tour events, semi-contender at the U.S. Open in June, 59-shooter — winning his first major title. He did it with unlikely scores of 73, 66, 69 and a first-rate, wild-run 68 in the finale.
Thomas comes from a line of pros. Paul the Pro begat Mike the Pro, and Mike begat Justin. But he is not the old pro from Tobacco Road. That’s Kevin Kisner, the 54-hole leader, territory. This guy, J.T., is the modern player, with clubhead speed that must frighten his tee, a deep wardrobe of Polo clothes in all the popular colors and a cluster of 20-something, Instagramming friends, all rooting for each other and spurring each other.
Back when Paul Thomas played in the 1962 U.S Open, golf was dog-eat-dog. For better or not, this is a kinder, gentler era. One of the vanquished, Chris Stroud, in the last twosome with Kisner, came off the final green about 15 minutes after Thomas did and said, “Well deserved. Way to go. Unbelievable.” Jordan and Rickie were there, too, among the first to offer their bro hugs and handshakes. What’s different now is there’s plenty of money to go around for everybody. But still only four majors. At the highest levels of the game, those events have never been more important.
What Thomas did may not have been unbelievable, but it was mightily impressive golf. The whole thing could have played out differently, but Thomas, playoff stubble on his face, began the back-nine with a putt that sat on the lip for about 12 seconds but for what felt like 12 minutes. Yes, the rule says you can only wait 10 seconds. But you have to know the fine print, and Thomas clearly does.
Rule 16-2, which covers a ball hanging on the lip, reads: “When any part of the ball overhangs the lip of the hole, the player is allowed enough time to reach the hole without unreasonable delay and an additional 10 seconds to determine whether the ball is at rest.” That’s what he did.
Thomas, in his CBS interview at the awards ceremony, said he “acted like a child and threw a little tantrum.” It’s funny, how you see yourself and how others see you. There was no tantrum, not an external one, anyhow. Thomas was just wise enough to wait, within the rules, and the ball fell for a 4 on the par-5. He was off to the races.
Yes, as a better-ball team, Thomas and Spieth have the career grand slam. You’ve been talking about Spieth all year, right? But here’s a shocker for your next grill-room debate: Thomas, with four wins including a major, could be your Player of the Year, if you’re into fighting over that whole thing. (Hogan and Snead were.) Regardless of what happens there, Thomas earned $1.9 million and a name on a big old trophy with names familiar to his father and grandfather. The afternoon was at once excruciating, deliciously slow, and NASCAR (based here) fast.
At 5 p.m., the air still and warm, the Wanamaker Trophy hanging out, waiting for a kiss, Thomas was one of five men who stood at seven under par on the difficult Quail Hollow Club course, with its Bermuda greens and wet, snarling rough. Your protagonists:
— Francesco Molinari, sullen-eyed Italian Ryder Cupper
— Hideki Matsuyama, impassive son of Japan, ranked third in the world (extra credit if you knew that)
— Justin Thomas, 24-year-old skinny-armed, hard-swinging young-gun from Kentucky
— Chris Stroud, Eric Trump’s long-lost cousin (by appearance), if the EVP of Trump Golf spoke Texan, wore a beard and could handle a long-shafted putter with something approaching manly excellence
— Kevin Kisner, gritty and cheeky native South Carolinian wearing Carolina blue, though (given his inattention to such details) likely by accident
Not a single major title among them. Which meant, if the winner came from that group, somebody’s life was going to change Sunday afternoon at the revamped Quail Hollow Club. (This was not the course you know from all those springtime Tour events here.) All you had to do was get to the house with the lowest score. But only Thomas was sprinting there. Figuratively and close to literally. This guy swings fast and walks faster.
After winning early and often this year, Thomas, a most confident lad, talked about winning at Augusta. That didn’t happen. (He finished in a tie for 22nd.) At the Masters—where the hoary old catchphrase (the tournament doesn’t start until the back-nine on Sunday) was birthed—you pretty much have to keep your ball dry playing in if you’re going to win. At Augusta, 160 motoring miles away from there, there are watery graves on 11, 12, 13, 15 and 16. Quail Hollow may not be Augusta National, and nobody is going to confuse its Green Mile (the long three last holes) with Augusta’s Amen Corner. But it’s a damn good course, more than worthy of a major championship, and there’s water from 14 on home. Staying dry was a necessary starting point. And that’s what Justin Thomas did. In victory, he hugged his T-shirted buddies, Spieth and Fowler and Bud Cauley. Good times.
You may have noticed that among Sunday’s leading men there was no Rory, no Jordan, no Dustin — no Tiger, it goes without saying. Yet the tournament was delicious. (This boatful of names is an improvement over the Tiger era, where he was so often the whole show.) A guy could think about making a score going out. But the back-nine was so hard Bubba Watson (MC) was probably crying just watching on TV.
It wasn’t merely all that H2O and the wet rough that made the course so hard. It was the pin positions, too. Which holes? Let’s see — 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18. What Fowler did playing in, a back-nine 32 for 67, four under par for the day, was ridiculous. (Thomas came home in 34, with a bogey on the last.) But that 32 only got Fowler to five under. And five under was not going to win, not with five guys at seven under at 5 p.m.
Later, Molinari and Patrick Reed posted six under, which turned out to be the second-place scores. Fowler will be on Steve Stricker’s Presidents Cup team in September. But his search for his first major continues. Meanwhile, McIlroy, fighting spams in his back, was talking about taking off the rest of the year, to let his 28-year-old body rest, to search for a caddie, to enjoy being a newlywed. But maybe it was just the long week on a hard course talking.
It was TBF. (Tough but fair.) There is likely not a better course set-up man in the United States than Kerry Haigh of the PGA of America, the organization that represents 28,000 golf professionals and the presenters of this nearly-ancient event. Describing the hole locations, Haigh said (by email) on Sunday morning, “There are a number of enticing and accessible hole locations that offer players the opportunity to be aggressive. There are also a handful of more difficult locations, especially on the closing holes, that will require players to take care.” Forgive Mr. Haigh. He has that dry wit for which the English are so famous. More difficult? How ’bout crazy-hard!
What you had on Sunday, ladies and gentlemen, is major-championship golf. You want immortality? Go out and grab it with two hands. Rich Beem (your 2002 PGA winner) will tell you that. So will Shaun Micheel (’03 champ). And Rory McIlory (’12 and ’14). And Tiger Woods his own self (’99, ’00, ’06, ’07).
And now we add Thomas’s name to that list. When he hugged his dad in victory, his Titleist cap nearly crashed with his father’s Titleist cap. Club-pro father, touring-pro son. Mike Thomas looks like Dave Stockton, a former PGA champion himself. Justin Thomas looks like the future. Fast and young and fearless. Check out his chip-in on 13.
Sunday night, ‘round eight, Thomas came into the Quail Hollow press tent. He didn’t look like a different person. But he kind of sounded like one. He said, “It was a crazy day. Walking up to 12 green, there was five of us at seven under!” But that was then. From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., the world did not change, but his did.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]