TULSA, Okla.—The 104th PGA Championship can be summed up in five words: Justin Thomas, just in time.
After Thomas somehow won his second PGA Championship, besting Will Zalatoris in a playoff, his visage holding the Wanamaker Trophy was already displayed on the big electronic scoreboard by the 18th green as the awards ceremony concluded there. PGA of America president Jim Richerson, in blue blazer and tie, squinted in the golden evening sunlight, flashed a big smile and shook his head.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever see something like this again,” Richerson said. “Even Justin, after he was off the microphone over there, said, ‘Seven back?’ He still couldn’t believe it. And, he’s the son of a PGA of America professional and the grandson of a PGA of America professional. We had a pretty good finish last year but this? This is unbelievable.”
At no point during most of the weekend did it appear the Wanamaker would be going home with Thomas for a second time in five years. With Chile’s surprising Mito Pereira? Maybe. Gritty Will Zalatoris? Possibly. Impressive Cameron Young or game Matt Fitzpatrick? Wouldn’t be surprised.
But Thomas? Surely not. He played the round of the week in high winds Friday morning, posting a 67, but then coughed up five bogeys in mild conditions during Saturday’s third round and faded out of the picture, putting himself seven strokes behind the unheralded Pereira and five shots out of second place.
Even Sunday didn’t look to be Thomas' time. Especially when he bogeyed the par-3 6th hole for a second straight day and was losing ground. Then, the authentic Justin Thomas showed up. Justin time.
He played the last 12 holes in 5 under par but it was better than that. Thomas narrowly missed at least four other putts. He could’ve won this PGA going away. But then we wouldn’t have had the drama, the spectacle, the nerve-busting tension, the agony and the ecstasy and all that other stuff that sells Hollywood scripts.
The PGA Championship didn’t just get the champion it deserved, it got the champion who deserved it the most. Thomas hit more clutch shots than anyone else, and went birdie-birdie on the first two holes of the playoff to put Zalatoris on his heels. Then at the 18th hole for a second time Sunday, he hit a superb approach shot exactly where he needed to.
In regulation, Thomas flagged it and had a 10-footer for birdie from just past the hole. He thought he had to sink it because he was one stroke behind Pereira and was upset when he didn’t. In the playoff, Zalatoris left his approach on the 18th green’s lower level so Thomas was sure par was going to be good enough. His 9-iron shot to the middle of the green was pin-high. He lagged the birdie putt to within inches, ironically hitting the Zalatoris’ marker that he’d moved at Thomas’ request, then tapped in for a victory that was unlikely a few hours earlier but by now was inevitable.
You didn’t have to be a lip-reader to know that Thomas said, “Oh, my god!” as he pulled off his hat, looked to the sky and felt the first tears run down his cheeks after he tapped in the putt. He hugged his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay. Within moments, he shared a group hug with his dad, Mike, and his mom, Jani.
“I was jittery and almost couldn’t feel my limbs walking up to that last tap-in,” Thomas admitted. “Although trying to two-putt from 25 feet is usually pretty doable, but downhill when you’ve got to two-putt to win, I was very pleased to see it end up that close.”
The finish ended two frustrating days at Southern Hills for Thomas, who was annoyed by not scoring better, especially Saturday, but not deterred. “I kept telling myself I’d been here before,” said Thomas, whose only major title was the 2017 PGA, which was starting to seem like an eon ago. “Although it’s been five years, I knew it was somewhere down in there. I hit great putts that just didn’t go in. I played that back nine beautifully today.”
The 67 posted by Thomas tied for the day’s low round with Tommy Fleetwood and Brendan Steele. His comeback from seven shots back — it reached eight early in the round — tied the PGA Championship mark set by John Mahaffey in 1978 at Oakmont Country Club.
The feel-good finish in which Thomas went out and won this title stood in stark contrast to the war of attrition that had been going on. In fact, it felt as if the PGA Championship came to Southern Hills Country Club and a U.S. Open broke out. Only 12 players finished 72 holes under par. Twenty-two were under par through 36 holes and during Saturday’s dreary third round, the most popular gear for would-be contenders was Reverse.
By Sunday afternoon, a British Open broke out. That’s because the likable Pereira bumped Jean van de Velde from his spot as golf’s poster boy for modern major-championship disastrous finishes. You may recall van de Velde’s watery finish at Carnoustie. Pereira suffered an equal dose of bad luck, bad execution and bad decisions. He needed a par at 18 to win or a bogey to qualify for a playoff. He made a double bogey and even that was just barely because he barely was able to shake in a three-footer for 6 that rattled in the cup’s right side.
Pereira was the tournament’s Cinderella story. He is 27, played one year of college golf at Texas Tech and was making only his second start in a major championship. Just when it appeared the moment was too big for him during Saturday’s third round and he stumbled with five mid-round bogeys, he finished strong and poured in a putt on the 18th hole to take a three-shot lead into Sunday.
Despite five bogeys, he still held a one-stroke lead going to the 18th. At 17, his birdie putt stopped on the edge. Another half a roll and maybe the Thomas family wouldn’t be toasting with champagne.
Pereira hit driver off the tee, blocked it and sent it scuttling into a water hazard in the right rough. From there, he hit it left of the green in a thick lie, chipped it over the green a few feet off the edge and then used putter to try to make the bogey he needed. He probably made a mistake on the club off the tee. A 3-wood would’ve kept the water out of reach. And that last attempt, putting through 3 feet of fringe is not the best way to hole a shot. Conventional wisdom says if you have to make it, you chip it, but if you have to get down in two, you putt it. His putt bounced high near the collar and came up well short.
That sent Zalatoris, a Wake Forest alum who has made a habit of contending in majors, to a playoff with Thomas, a Ryder Cup hero and former major champion who felt he’s been underachieving by not winning more often,.
“Obviously, it’s sad to be here and not in the playoff, not make par, just straight win,” Pereira said. “On 18, I wasn’t even thinking about the water. I just wanted to put it in play and I guess I aimed too far right. It’s not how I wanted this week to end up but it was a really good result. I played really good. Today, I was really nervous. I thought I was going to win on 18 but … we’ll have another chance.”
Young and Fitzpatrick were also in the mix most of the final round but came up short. Young, a Wake Forest University alum who tied Pereira for third, was a serious threat until he hit into a greenside bunker at the long par-4 16th hole, splashed out to 45 feet and three-putted for double bogey.
Fitzpatrick, an Englishman and a former U.S. Amateur champion who won seven times on the European Tour but never on the PGA Tour, fought hard despite rinsing a shot in the creek at the par-3 11th, where he salvaged a bogey, and nearly rinsing another one in the creek at the 17th, where he made the bogey that ended his chances.
Zalatoris finished strong to make the playoff. He birded the 17th hole when he had to, then parred the 18th to tie Thomas.
The three-hole playoff got off to a fast start. Zalatoris pounded an iron shot onto the par-5 13th green and two-putted for birdie. Thomas, forced to lay up from the right rough, matched that birdie with a six-foot putt.
At the par-4 17th, Thomas hit first and put his tee shot on the green, pin-high. Zalatoris missed left but pitched to seven feet. He missed and Thomas two-putted for birdie to move one stroke ahead.
At 18, Zalatoris wasn’t in birdie position after two shots and Thomas was able to comfortably two-putt for the win, something that seemed unlikely the night before when he was seven strokes back.
“I looked at the leaderboard last night,” Thomas said. “There were a lot of great players ahead of me but they hadn’t won a major before. I remembered how tough it was. So I knew I was going to be nervous and I knew they’d be feeling the exact same thing. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. So I stayed patient and went about my way.”
Thomas, 29, has two major titles and 13 other PGA Tour victories. He’s already in the neighborhood of Hall of Fame career stuff. The way he won this PGA Championship, with a remarkable comeback, is one that will stand the test of time.
“It’s very, very special,” Thomas said. “As Tom Brady says, Your favorite Super Bowl is your next one.”
Thomas pointed to the Wanamaker Trophy on the podium next to him and added, “At this moment, it’s definitely this guy right here.”
He came from seven back. Justin time.