Tour Confidential: How PGA champion Justin Thomas claimed ‘major’ fame
Every Sunday night, GOLF.com conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.
1. Justin Thomas broke out of a crowded pack on the back nine Sunday at Quail Hollow to win the 99th PGA Championship. What impressed you most about how he locked down his first major title?
Sean Zak, associate editor, GOLF.com (@Sean_Zak): It may not be a sexy answer, but I was just impressed that he didn’t crack. Closing out a victory on Sunday hasn’t always worked for JT (see: WGC-Mexico, U.S. Open) — and it doesn’t always work for most people — but he stayed the course after two bogeys in his first three holes. He didn’t crack. He didn’t get impatient. He kept putting himself in position and was rewarded in a number of ways.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Also, he has a little magic in his game, much like his buddy Spieth. That putt that hung on the lip and fell is an obvious example, but how many guys chip-in on the back nine to win a major? Tiger, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino…that’s good company.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: His understanding of the 10-second rule on his birdie putt on 10. That putt falling made a huge difference for the final eight holes.
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, GOLF.com (@Jeff_Ritter): And like Sean mentioned, he didn’t unravel over those final eight. He had proven himself to be a Tour-winner, but this was the first time he had ever seen his name atop a Sunday leaderboard at a major, and he closed the show.
Alan Bastable, executive editor, GOLF.com (@alan_bastable): The tee shot at 17. That took stones. All week guys had been struggling to merely hit that green, then JT steps in there and draws one into that terrifying hole location late on a Sunday at a major. And then to back it up by pouring in the putt? All-world stuff.
Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): He took advantage of the breaks he got, he nailed some huge shots and putts and he learned from his mess-up final round at the U.S. Open. This was not a fluke. He was clearly the deserving winner.
2. Thomas won the CIMB Classic in October and then picked up consecutive victories in Hawaii in January. In June, he shot a historic nine-under 63 at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills on his way to a T9 finish. And now he has the Wanamaker Trophy. Is J.T. the clear frontrunner for Player of the Year honors?
Zak: Undoubtedly. The only guy that could unseat him would be Spieth, and I think that would require multiple playoff wins from the Golden Child.
Shipnuck: I agree with Sean. Though, it must be pointed out that one of Thomas’s wins is the CIMB, which was in 2016 and a relatively weak field, and another came at Kapalua, with its tiny field. So if Jordan wins one playoff event and the Cup he can make a compelling case.
Bamberger: Yes, except for the fact I’d rather have Jordan Spieth’s year than Justin Thomas’s year, great though it was. Speith earned a place in golf’s permanent lore.
Ritter: On top of the titles and the 63 at Erin Hills, Thomas also shot a 59 at the Sony in January. He’s the guy to beat for the post-season awards.
Bastable: Yes, the playoffs *could* swing the balance, but that comes down to how much stock you give the “postseason” events. Would one Spieth “W” draw him even with JT? No. Two? Maybe. Whatever happens, how Jordan closed out the proceedings at Birkdale was undoubtedly the performance of the year.
Passov: I’m not quite ready to hand it to JT, but he’s the front-runner right now. It’ll be fun to see him go head-to-head for year-end honors against his pal, Jordan Spieth over the final weeks of the season.
3. Several players complained that the retooled layout at Quail Hollow was set up too difficult for the PGA. But on Sunday seven of the top-10 finishers broke 70. How did the course hold up as a major venue?
Zak: Admittedly, I can’t tell you much about the front nine. I can tell you ALL about the back nine, though, and isn’t that where we want our champions to forge memories? When we look back on the 99th PGA, I think we’ll remember the final score, we’ll remember the various fireworks of that back nine and we’ll remember it being Justin who, after five men were tied at seven under, was the only contender to go lower while every other one took a step back. Because of that, as is often the case, the course will probably be regarded well, despite the greens being too fast.
Bamberger: Wimps! Course was outstanding and set-up beautifully.
Shipnuck: The Saturday night rain and a little more water from the PGA made the final round much more playable, which was a good choice-the course was on the edge the first three rounds. I didn’t love the hack-out rough, which diminishes skill and shotmaking, and some of the new greens were so firm they didn’t accept well-played shots, but the exciting Sunday and Thomas’s classy play helped redeem Quail Hollow. I’d give it a B-.
Ritter: I’d go higher with my letter grade. It was tough, but guys didn’t suffer at all at the U.S. Open this year, so now they’re even. The greens were fast, and I agree that a hack-out from deep rough is one of the most boring shots in golf (the layup from the fairway on a par 5 remains No. 1), but I liked how the course had certain holes that were gettable, like 7, 8 and the driveable par-4 14th, and others where guys just had to hang on, like 1, 16, 17 and 18. The course added to the show and took nothing away from it, which is really all you could ever want.
Bastable: It was everything a major test should be, but I, like most of us, fully expected a 10-car pile-up on the Green Mile late on Sunday. That never materialized — JT got through there relatively unscathed — which was kind of a letdown after some of the wreckages we’d seen there earlier in the week.
Passov: It’s far from my favorite “major” course, but I’ll admit it presented itself beautifully as a test for today’s crazy-great talents. Yes, hacking out of Bermuda rough is boring, but that’s what you get in the Southeast at this time of year, and it is indeed a severe penalty. Sure, the greens were a bit too firm and a bit too fast, which truly favored long, high-ball hitters, even more so than great putters, but for all the whining that took place, it wasn’t as if the winning score was over par. And as Mr. Ritter points out, it wasn’t all a terror-filled slog. Plenty of birdie and eagle holes that moved the excitement needle to the right. B+.
4. Rory McIlroy, three years removed from his last major title, revealed Sunday that he has been battling spasms in his upper back the last few weeks and is uncertain when he’ll play next. “He’s hurt and I am watching his golf swing deteriorate,” David Duval said on Golf Channel. How concerned should Rory fans be?
Zak: Golf and bad backs…damn it, they don’t mix! I think with Rory at 28, still wildly muscular and (presumably) supple, enough rest and rehab will make him fine for the future. But I’m no PT. Bad backs seem to linger much longer than they’re ever expected to, so those Rory fans better be optimists.
Bamberger: I don’t know anything about the swing, by the David Duval standards—those guys see things we don’t. But I see a guy who is tired of the grind, doesn’t have a caddie and doesn’t really have anything to play for for the rest of the year, except money. I’m guessing that’s not enough of a motivation for him right now.
Shipnuck: Yeah, he should definitely shut it down until 2018. This injury will go away, with proper rest. More concerning is that Rory will arrive at the ‘18 Masters 45 months removed from his last major championship victory in what should be the prime of his career. There are lots of extenuating circumstances but bottom line he’s not getting it done.
Ritter: Oh, definitely shut it down. I think by revealing this now, McIlroy is insinuating that he plans to do as much. Backs are tricky. No reason to rush.
Bastable: Bums me out that we’re talking about a 28-year-old’s back troubles. And Rors isn’t the only young gun with these issues. The high-torque modern swing is a back-wrecker.
Passov: I’m with you, Alan B. Way too many injuries in too many young stars. Now, if he can play this well, when he’s not 100 percent (remember, it was mostly bad putting that was hurting him a few months ago), then rest and rehab seems the smartest way to go. If we look to tennis, it sure worked wonders for Federer and Nadal to take time off and come back healthy. Hope Rory sees it the same.
5. Phil Mickelson shot 79-74 at Quail Hollow to miss the cut at the PGA for the first time in 22 years. Mickelson, who also missed the weekend at Birkdale, cited an inability to focus and visualize shots. How much of an effect do you suppose his split with his longtime caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, is having on Phil’s game?
Bamberger: Significant, in ways that cannot be captured easily in words. He became dependent, maybe, on all that back-and-forth chit-chat. It must be so quiet for him without it. And then other thoughts come into your head.
Zak: If Phil’s struggles are truly a result of an “inability to focus,” he sure needs to get a caddie on the bag that will make him focus. I subscribe to the idea that he’s still a top-30 golfer in the world, which, at age 47 is nothing but incredible. That being said, time is very much not on his side, so Phil, make haste!
Shipnuck: Phil looked lost out there. Maybe the ship has sailed with Bones but he needs a more fiery, engaged personality than his laconic little brother.
Ritter: It’s such a surprise, because in addition to the majors Phil relishes the team events, and he needs to show something to captain Stricker to make the Presidents Cup squad. It was strange to see him look so lost. It will be equally strange seeing him try to grind out a spot on the U.S. team during the FedEx playoffs.
Bastable: It’s a drag. Phil has always built his year around the majors (and the occasional graduation). To see him out of the mix after 18 holes was alarming and depressing. The Bones Effect? No doubt it’s a thing. Maybe worth a shot or two here or there. But not 79 of them. Don’t put a fork in Phil yet, though. He has a way of winning when we least expect it.
Passov: Phil’s very first hole of this year’s PGA summarized where he is right now. He crushed a perfect drive at the brutal par-4 1st, then inexplicably flew the green long right, short-siding himself from a downhill lie in dense Bermuda rough. He actually canned a decent putt for bogey. I don’t know what to suggest or what lies ahead, but I miss having him be a part of the story.
6. It’s official: The PGA Championship is moving to May beginning with the 2019 edition at Bethpage Black (the Players is also relocating, to March), which will allow the FedEx Cup playoffs to wrap up before the NFL season kicks off. Good move all around?
Zak: It made more logical sense than anything the PGA Tour has done with their schedule in a long, long time. I think this had nothing to do with the PGA Championship and everything to do with the FedEx Cup, one meaty sponsor and golf being a niche sport. A streamlined championship season will sure be fun to cover!
Bamberger: I totally agree, young Zak. The PGA Tour owns the schedule. The FedEx money carries a lot of sway in Ponte Vedra. I hope it works out well for the PGA of America. I think they would do well to come up with four or five venues and go back again and again, including maybe one site they build in their own image. (Not Valhalla.) It’s a great and important organization and I hope they can figure this out. The challenges are significant.
Shipnuck: Given the swamp-ass I’ve suffered all week – as at pretty much every steamy PGA – I’m gonna have to say yes.
Ritter: I’m on board. Golf gets lost during the NFL season, and it gives the PGA a chance to form a new identity and bring the event to some new venues. I also love the Players serving as the first big event of the year and perfect run-up to Augusta. Which reminds me: how many days until the Masters?
Bastable: The Tour wanted it, the players wanted it, the PGA of America wan…er, had no choice. Also, after five days in the Charlotte oven, I second Shipnuck’s astute swamp-ass point.
Passov: When I think of some of the venues that have hosted the PGA in mid-August, I literally start to sweat—and that’s inside, in air conditioning. It isn’t fun for fans and officials, let alone players and caddies, trudging up hills in cities like Tulsa, St. Louis and Charlotte. Yes, I’d be bummed to lose a few great tracks that wouldn’t be quite right in May, but the trade-off is better.