TULSA, Okla. – Justin Thomas calculated the yardage for his approach shot on Southern Hills’ par-4 seventh in Sunday’s final round of the PGA Championship and could only look to caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay and laugh as they pulled the 5-iron he’d cold hard shanked just a few minutes earlier.
Thomas had gone through the embarrassment of catching his tee shot at the par-3 sixth tee off the hosel, then seeing his attempted recovery shot cannon into a tree and rebound sideways into a bunker from another hole.
A brilliant “cutty pitching wedge from 100 yards” followed that ended up at 20-feet from the pin before Thomas poured in the bogey putt that dropped him a distant eight shots off the lead. Turns out the shank just set the stage for one of the greatest comebacks in major championship history, as well.
“I shanked it. I just cold shanked it. I don’t really know how else to say it. It was the best bogey I’ve ever made in my life, that’s for sure,” Thomas said.
In the end, it was just one of countless amazing moments in a crazy final round. Thomas recovered from the embarrassment to string together five birdies in his closing 10 holes to shoot 3-under 67, good enough to get in a playoff with Will Zalatoris that Thomas won with birdies on the first two holes. It was the 15th victory of Thomas’ career and second major title, coming five years after he won his first PGA. He moved to fourth in the FedExCup and fifth in the world ranking with his first win since last year’s THE PLAYERS.
But it all began back at Southern Hills’ seventh.
“The very next hole, with water right of the green, and the green sloping left to right, he’s now got to step up and hit this shot with this club he shanked 20 minutes ago and he hit arguably his best shot of the day,” Mackay said. “We were remarking at the time it was his best full swing of the week and he hit it to 10 feet from 197 yards.”
The old Thomas might have already checked out. If not, missing the 10-foot birdie putt at No. 7 would have done it. then perhaps. But a pep talk from Mackay a day earlier on the driving range, after Thomas signed for a frustrating 74, did the trick.
“I’m fully confident in saying that I wouldn’t be standing here if he didn’t give me talk,” Thomas admitted.
What was so important?
“I just needed to let some steam out. I didn’t need to bring my frustration and anger home with me. I didn’t need to leave the golf course in a negative frame of mind. I played pretty well yesterday for shooting 4 over, and I felt like I’d played terrible. And he was just like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to be stop being so hard on yourself. You’re in contention every single week we’re playing,’” Thomas explained. “I’ve had a lot of chances to win tournaments, and it’s a hard golf course; it’s a major championship. You don’t have to be perfect. Just don’t be hard on yourself. Just kind of let stuff happen, and everything is trending in the right direction. So just keep staying positive so that good stuff can happen.”
The talk was music to Mike Thomas’ ears. As his son’s swing coach, he’d wanted to give his boy a lift, but knew it wouldn’t likely resonate. He’d watched the 12-month winless stretch grind on Justin, despite the fact he was notching top-10s on a consistent basis.
“Bones said some things that I wanted to say but I know as a father if I had of said them, he’d have been like, “You’re stroking my ego,” but Bones said them and it hit home for him,” said Mike Thomas. “It was a really good message. It’s kind of crazy. He’s played this year as well as he has ever played. But he’d won so much that I think he was pressing some. Hopefully this will take the weight off a little bit.”
Combine Justin’s new mindset with the fact that 54-hole leader Mito Pereira was starting to feel the heat, and the unbelievable became believable.
Thomas made an 11-foot birdie on the ninth hole and a long-range bomb from 64 feet on the par-3 11th while Pereira bogeyed the seventh and eighth holes behind. Suddenly the eight-shot gap was halved to four.
“Anything can happen in golf and Justin is a resilient guy and when he needs to play offense. He can because he has the tools to do it. … He has more shots than anyone on TOUR,” Mackay said.
Another birdie on the 12th from 17 feet saw Thomas pull within three, but when he failed to birdie the par-5 13th and missed another chance on the 15th, it appeared he might fall short.
But he refused to give in and birdied the drivable par-4 17th by getting close from a greenside bunker before setting up a 10-foot birdie try on the last after two great shots. At the time, he figured he needed to make it to have a chance.
“I was obviousrvous. Walking up 18, I wanted to make that putt. But you’d like to have a little straighter, easier uphill putt than a putt breaking a foot and a half, 2 feet, going away from you,” Thomas said.
Pereira, who led for the majority of the day, rode a bogey-birdie-bogey rollercoaster on Nos. 12-14 to find himself at 6 under with four to play. He’d been joined there by Zalatoris and Cameron Young on the back nine at various stages.
Young, a PGA TOUR rookie who like Thomas has a PGA of America professional for a father, lost his chance with a bogey on 14 and double on 16. A birdie on 17 gave faint hopes, but when his 61-foot birdie attempt on 18 didn’t drop he settled for a T3 finish.
Zalatoris was as deep as 8 under early in the round but bogeys on Nos. 6, 7, 12 and 16 seemed to have cruelled his hopes. A birdie on 17 moved him back to 5 under and par on the last left him level with Thomas in the clubhouse.
Pereira would miss a birdie try on 15 from 10 feet, make a clutch par from 11 feet on 16 before leaving his 12-foot birdie try on 17 hanging on the edge of the cup. Needing par to win his first TOUR event, he sadly sliced his tee shot into the water, failed to reach the green after a penalty and couldn’t even muster bogey to join the playoff.
The three-hole aggregate playoff between Thomas and Zalatoris began with both making birdie on the opening par-5 before they returned to the drivable 17th. Thomas would drive the green. Zalatoris missed short right. A two-putt birdie was enough for Thomas to lead when Zalatoris failed to get up-and-down before the pair traded pars on the final hole.
“It’s easy to start letting some doubt creep in, … but I was very calm today,” Thomas said. “I was very calm in the playoff. I was calm the last couple holes.
“I felt like I could do what I wanted to do, which is really all I could ask for. This is a very special win. A great team win. And hopefully also a stepping stone.
* Information and images credit to www.pgatour.com