Justin Thomas is, at last, a two-time major winner. But he needed a lot of help getting there. Alex Perry wraps up a rollercoaster final day at the PGA Championship
A little more than two thirds of major champions in the men’s game have won more than one. How many times down the years have you double-checked that Justin Thomas isn’t already part of that group?
Not many of us would have predicted he would need five years to get back in the winners’ circle at the top table, but it was worth the wait. A thrilling final-day 67 from the American, who lifted the Wanamaker Trophy at Quail Hollow in 2017, was enough to force a playoff with Will Zalatoris. A playoff he would win to become not just a multiple major champion but a multiple PGA champion.
Thomas started the day seven back, and he needed a little help from overnight leader Mito Pereira, whose double-bogey collapse at 18 meant 5-under-par was enough for extra holes. Incidentally, the score on which Rory McIlroy ended day one. What he wouldn’t give to go back 72 hours.
Birdies at the first two playoff holes were enough to allow Thomas a two-putt par down the last for the win.
He collapsed into the arms of first his dad, Mike, then his mum, Jani. The tears became full-blown sobs as girlfriend Jillian rushed onto the green to embrace him.
As officials set up for the closing ceremony, Tiger Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg handed Thomas his phone. No prizes for guessing who was on the other end. “Hi, dear,” a beaming Thomas said to a golfer who is not only the reason he plays the game, but someone who has become a close friend and mentor in recent years. And then, after a beat: “I love you, man.”
So what’s changed since that last PGA win?
“Five years is a long time, especially at this stage of my life,” Thomas explained in his post-tournament press conference. “I would like to think and hope that everything has just gotten a little better.
“There’s nothing that’s standing out of a massive difference. I weigh about 15 pounds more, [so] I’ve put on some weight.
“That’s just the big part of it is you just want to get one per cent better. I don’t need to revamp everything. I don’t need to hit it 30 yards farther. I don’t need to change equipment, change ball, everything that I have and been doing has been working.
“It’s just trying to just get it a little bit better. I just feel like that’s what I’ve done in every facet.”
He also singled out his right-hand man, Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay, who gave him a few home truths on the practice range on Saturday.
“I’m fully confident in saying that I wouldn’t be standing here if he didn’t give me that talk.
“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 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. You’ve had a lot of chances to win tournaments, and it’s a hard golf course, and 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.’
“I left here in an awesome frame of mind. It was so peaceful. It was almost kind of eerie how beautiful it was outside, and there’s not very many times after shooting 4-over on Saturday of a major I left in as good a frame of mind as I have.”
For Zalatoris – who is yet to get over the line on the PGA Tour – it’s a fifth top 10 in eight major starts. Not bad for a player so far down the putting stats you wonder how he manages to get it in the hole at all.
As for Pereira, well, he was so fed up with golf at one point, he quit the game for two years. He might be feeling that way again after his brutal finish.
The Chilean, who snuck into the tournament as World No 100, took an overnight three-shot lead into the final round. That was down to just one on the 18th tee but, needing par to win his first major in just his second start, he carved his driver into the creek that runs down the right-hand side of Southern Hills’ finisher. A double bogey meant he missed the playoff by a shot.
Pereira was just four when Jean van de Velde did something similar at The Open in 1999, hopefully this won’t affect him in the same way.
Publicly, he remained upbeat. “I’m just happy with how the week turned out,” he told CBS off the back of the scene of the meltdown. “On Monday I just wanted to make the cut. On Sunday I wanted to win.
“I’ll take this and learn for the future.”
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Pereira finished tied-third alongside another PGA Championship debutant in Cameron Young, while the English pair of Matthew Fitzpatrick and Tommy Fleetwood shared fifth with Chris Kirk.
First-round leader McIlroy was eighth, while Brendan Steele, Tom Hoge, Abraham Ancer and Seamus Power made up the top 10.