Three moments that helped Thomas win the PGA
August 13, 2017
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Justin Thomas' cliffhanger at PGA ChampionshipIn the final round of the 2017 PGA Championship, Justin Thomas' 8-foot putt hangs on the lip for several seconds before dropping for birdie on the par-4 10th hole.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Winning a major – winning any golf tournament for that matter – is a series of decisive moments. Three memorable back-nine moments Sunday at Quail Hollow helped turn Justin Thomas into the PGA Championship winner.
THE 10-SECOND WAIT
Thomas likes to talk to his golf ball. A lot. With his tee shot in the air at the par-5 10th – listed at 601 yards on Sunday, it was playing as the longest hole of the week – he made an urgent plea. He could see the ball drifting left toward the trees. He needed divine help.
“Get lucky,” he requested. “Just spit it out for me, please.”
Two days earlier, in Friday’s second round, Thomas had also pulled his drive at the 10th. He thought the ball would be OK, but instead it hit a tree and kicked 30 yards into trouble. He did not get lucky that time, although he did scramble for a birdie that day.
Now here he was, starting the back nine of a major just one shot off the lead, and – wouldn’t you know it -- his ball was headed for that very same tree. Thomas silently hoped fate would intervene. “I feel like that tree kind of owed me one,” he said.
The debt was indeed paid. The ball bounced off the tree and into the fairway, niftily avoiding the fairway bunker. A huge break. Walking down the fairway toward his ball, Thomas turned to his caddie Jimmy Johnson and said, “That’s why you ask.”
But the 10th wasn’t finished making Thomas sweat.
With a birdie putt from 8 feet, 3 inches, Thomas faced what he called a “weird” read, with the grain in and from the right at the beginning of the putt, then switching to the left closer to the cup. He opted to play a straight line, expecting the grain to feed the ball back-and-forth into the hole. But the ball stayed left.
It reached the cup … and then hung there, one half of the little white sphere suspended in mid-air.
Thomas turned his back to the hole in disbelief. How had the ball not dropped? “It was acting like a child and threw a little tantrum,” he said.
Johnson was also shocked. “Oh my gosh,” said the veteran caddie. “I didn’t see how there was any way it was staying out.”
On the CBS broadcast, analyst Nick Faldo began to count.
“1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5,” he said, ticking off the seconds. Thomas either had to mark – or in this case, tap in – once 10 seconds were reached.
“6 … 7 … 8 … 9 …” That’s when gravity was restored at Quail Hollow. The ball dropped. The roars came. Thomas tipped his cap to the golf gods and gave a wry shrug.
His caddie kept quiet. “I didn’t say anything,” Johnson revealed. “I didn’t say much all day except for the yardages and the clubs. I was just trying to survive.”
But in that silence, Johnson processed the ramifications. Last month, Thomas’ good friend Jordan Spieth had won the Travelers Championship by holing a bunker shot. Perhaps the good breaks at 10 were a sign of things to come.
“I thought it might be our day, like it was Jordan’s at Hartford,” Johnson said. “I thought that might be an omen. You have to have good things happen to you to win golf tournaments.”
Thomas was 7 under. Soon he would be the solo leader.
Less than 30 minutes after his birdie putt fell at 10, Justin Thomas was on the 12th green when he realized there was a five-way tie for the lead. His playing partner, Hideki Matsuyama, had just dropped a stroke. The twosome in the final group, Kevin Kisner and Chris Stroud, were each at 7 under. Well ahead, Francesco Molinari had just birdied 15 to also reach 7 under.
“To see that was kind of crazy,” Thomas said.
A few minutes, the craziness continued. After making par at 12, Thomas remained at 7 under – but everyone else had lost a stroke. He was now the solo leader.
But he appeared in danger of giving that stroke away when his tee shot at the par-3 13th missed the green left. It left him in the rough, 39 feet, 7 inches from the pin.
It was a tricky chip shot just to get the ball close to the pin.
“That first cut is so tough to chip,” Thomas explained. “This entire course, it’s tough to chip out of the rough. But that first cut you get, you can really look stupid in a heartbeat because it’s all into the grain and it’s really to where you can just flub it.”
Thomas said even if the play is to simply hit it in front, the ball could come out hot and run past the hole.
This one did not come out hot. It came out perfect, rolling into the cup for an unexpected birdie. He thought the cheers at 10 were loud. The ones at 13 were louder.
“Exactly like I saw,” Thomas said. “That was a roar like I’ve never experienced.”
On the bag, Johnson began to believe. “He hit a lot of good shots today,” Johnson said, “but when he chipped in on 13, I thought it might be his day.”
Thomas was now 8 under. His lead was two strokes with five holes to play.
VISION IN HIS HEAD
Thomas started the Green Mile – Quail Hollow’s last three holes, the toughest closing stretch on the PGA TOUR since 2003 – with a par at the 16th. Now he was at the par-3 17th, playing at 221 yards Sunday.
Kisner was hot on his trail after consecutive birdies, cutting Thomas’ lead to one upon reaching the 16th. Patrick Reed also had been at 7 under but had just bogeyed the 18th.
Thomas contemplated his tee shot. He just needed par on a hole with a “really brutal” pin. Anything short of the green would fall off against the collar and likely result in a bogey. Anything long would also be a sure bogey.
He just needed to land his shot at about 200 yards just past the false edge. He could pull the shot and still get away with it, albeit with a long putt.
When he’s practicing at home, Thomas hits a 6-iron 200 yards. But 7-iron was the play now. He never considered another club. His adrenaline level had red-lined, so he figured a full 7 was better than a finesse 6.
“You’re pumped up, you’re feeling it,” Thomas said. “You’re kind of not full bore, but you want to swing at something.”
So he swung. Hard. Then he stared. A perfect shot.
“I’ll never forget that vision in my head,” he said.
Thomas’ shot landed 14 feet, 6 inches from the pin. He poured in the putt. It was his sixth and final birdie of the day – and it was all he needed. It allowed him breathing room to make bogey on the final hole and still win by two shots.
It’s the first major for the 24-year-old Thomas … and also the first for his veteran caddie. Johnson began caddying in 1997 for Nick Price, who by then had already won his three majors. Johnson then caddied for Steve Stricker, annually one of the best players without a major during his prime.
Johnson left Stricker’s bag two years ago to caddie for Thomas.
“That was probably the hardest decision I ever made in my life, to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “Strick’s such a good guy, great player, quality guy. It was very tough.”
But he had seen something in Thomas. “He’s got some of those special shots that some of the guys can’t hit,” Johnson said.
And now Thomas has a major. Doubt it will be his only one.