As fate demanded, the 99th PGA Championship delivered a historic victory for a 24-year-old American, only this young lion was from Kentucky, not Texas and this was his first major not his fourth.
Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth are the best of friends. Thomas waited greenside at Birkdale to cheer Spieth to his third major triumph, which left him at history’s door coming to Quail Hollow. But it would be Thomas who walked through it and Spieth who returned the favour, standing on the bank beside the 18th green to welcome him to the club.
Thomas is a third generation professional golfer. His father Mike, also at greenside to witness his son’s magnificent two-shot triumph, and grandfather Paul are both PGA pros, but neither hit a ball like junior, and could only dream of a day like this.
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“For me, the PGA definitely had a special place in my heart, and maybe a special drive,” Thomas said. “It’s just a great win for the family and a moment we’ll never forget. For this to be my first one and have my dad here, and I know Grandpa was watching at home. I was able to talk to him and that was pretty cool.
“I know that a major champion is something that will never be taken away from you, after my name. Hopefully, I’m going to win some more, plenty more. I know you can’t get to two until you get one.”
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It was a quite stunning finale, and like all major championships began on the back nine of championship Sunday. You knew something special was cooking when Thomas left his birdie putt at the tenth on the last blade of grass above the hole. He could barely believe gravity was holding out on him, turned his back and began a long circular walk to allow time for Newton’s universal law of physics to play out.
The rules allow ten seconds for a player to tap-in, and on the count of nine it did just that, sending the galleries wild. He still had his back turned when it dropped and didn’t see it fall. “Honestly, I swear, when it got there I was like, 'This ball has to go in. There’s no way it can stay there. I threw a little fit to see what would happen. Gravity took over.”
Thomas celebrated with a theatrical bow and a tip of his cap. It was his third birdie in four holes, and briefly took him into a share of the lead at seven under par before playing partner Hideki Matsuyama followed in him to lead outright, one shot clear.
Matsuyama was on some run, and must have thought the Wanamaker Trophy had his name on it when he birdied his fifth hole in a row at the 11th to go two clear after earlier in his round posting three successive bogeys. But within two holes that lead had gone, Thomas chipping in from 40 feet at the 13th after Matsuyama ended his birdie blizzard with a dropped shot at 12th.
At this point six players all seeking their maiden major victory were locked within a shot of each other, including Kevin Kisner, who had never been out of the lead since the first day. Ultimately the back nine proved too great a challenge for all except the remarkable Thomas, who entered the three hole torture chamber that is the Green Mile at the end of the round with a two-shot advantage and drove a stake through his rivals’ hearts with a birdie at the par-3 17th.
“That was one of the best golf shots I’ve probably ever hit in my life,” Thomas said of his tee shot to the quasi island green. “That shot, I’ll never forget that vision in my head. It landing and getting closer.”
Thomas had clearly learned from his experience at the US Open in June, where he led into the final round after a 63 on Saturday to equal the record low in a major (since lowered at The Open by Branden Grace), but unravelled under the pressure of topping a leaderboard for the first time on the Sunday of a major. Not now.
“The emotions were indifferent. I didn't lose the tournament by any means. Brooks (Koepka) won it. I would have had to play just as well on Sunday as I did on Saturday to shoot 67 or better. It was windy, it was tough, it was the Sunday of a major. First time in the final group in a U.S. Open, let alone some great players trying to win.”
There was none of that tension in North Carolina, just a sense that fate was on his side, and even told his partner to change her flight, so that she would be around to see it. “I just had an unbelievable calmness throughout the week, throughout the day. I truly felt like I was going to win.
“I remember my girlfriend was supposed to fly out at about 7:00 and I was like, ‘You need to change your flight to later, because, I don't know, I just feel like I don't want you to miss this. I feel like I'm going to get it done.’”
Thomas could even afford a bogey at the last and still win by two from Patrick Reed, Francesco Molinari and Louis Oosthuizen, with Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler three back on five under par.
MCILROY'S INJURY WOES
Rory McIlroy had his best day of the week posting a 68 to finish on one over par, a shot clear of Spieth, but admitted afterwards he might not play again this season after the rib injury that has disrupted much of his year flared again with referred pain in his left shoulder and neck.
“I can feel my left rhomboid going into spasm. It's sort of the way it has been the last few weeks. I have upped my practice coming into these two events because I wanted to feel like I was in a good place in my game.
“But right now it's a tough one because I go out there and play and shoot decent scores, but when I come off the course, I feel my left rhomboid going into spasm. Inside of my left arm goes numb. So I don't know what to do.
“I have got this next week off to assess what I need to go forward. I don't know what I'm going to do. You might not see my until next year. You might see me in a couple of weeks time. It really depends.”
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