Thomas shows he still knows how to win
August 18, 2019
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Justin Thomas' Round 4 highlights at BMW Championship
MEDINAH, Ill. – Justin Thomas was already nervous. He had probably lingered too long on his phone, reading the good-luck and you-got-this texts from well-wishers who assumed that closing out a six-shot lead on Sunday is a mere formality. JT hadn’t even arrived at the course yet for his final round at the BMW Championship.
When he did, some friendly advice was waiting for him from the locker room attendants at Medinah, who evidently decided that a guy who’s won a FedExCup, a major, and multiple PGA TOUR events needed help on how to close out a tournament. OK, it has been a year since Thomas has won. People like him and want him to succeed. But still …
Their advice? Talk to your caddie. A lot. Make sure you keep talking.
“OK, as long as you stop talking, it’s fine with me,” JT thought to himself.
Thomas knows all too well that large leads do not come with guarantees. Sure, six-shot leads seem safe – since 1928, just seven 54-hole leaders in PGA TOUR history have lost such a lofty lead. But Thomas remembered the 2017 Sentry Tournament of Champions, when he led by five shots after 13 holes but saw it whittled to one by Hideki Matsuyama before JT closed it out.
Matsuyama was at it again on Sunday, going out in 5-under 31 en route to his second 63 of the week. Matsuyama’s first 63, on Friday, had set the course record – one that lasted for 24 hours until Thomas eclipsed it with a magnificent 61 on Saturday that set him up with the huge advantage.
Matsuyama was too far away from posing any real threat, but one of Thomas’ playing partners, future Presidents Cup teammate Patrick Cantlay, was offering some high heat. When Cantlay produced his fourth consecutive birdie at the par-5 10th while Thomas bogeyed the hole after an errant second shot with a 3-wood – “Just a bad shot,” JT said – the lead was reduced to two shots.
Cantlay had the momentum. “I knew I had to make birdies,” he said.
But that’s when Thomas flipped the switch. The game was officially on – and that got the competitive juices flowing. In fact, his nervousness to start the day with a six-shot lead was now replaced with the bravado and fearlessness of a closer.
“If I have a two-shot lead with eight holes left,” Thomas said, “I feel confident I can pull it off.”
Thomas responded at the par-4 11th by hitting an approach shot from 106 yards to 2 feet. Birdie. Lead now three shots. An errant drive on the next hole posed trouble, but Thomas saved par by rolling in a 14-foot putt.
Then, after Cantlay rolled in a birdie putt at the par-3 13th from 15 feet, Thomas responded with his own birdie from inside 12 feet.
They matched birdies again at the par-4 15th, before Cantlay finally flinched on the next hole with a bogey. With a four-shot lead and two to play, JT was safely home, eventually winning by three.
“I needed to make any of the putts on 12, 14 or 15 if I really wanted to get some momentum on my side,” Cantlay said. “Seemed like him saving par on 12 was big. Then obviously I tried to get one back on 13, and then he made it on top of me.
“So he just played really well. It was going to be hard for me to get to 25 under anyway.”
Indeed, that’s where Thomas ended up, just three shots off the tournament scoring record on a course that normally offers more resistance. In the end, Thomas needed the pressure of being pushed so that he could offer the proper – and winning – response.
“It’s always easy when things are going well,” Thomas said. “When your back is up against the wall or when you get pressured or put a little heat on you, I think how you respond is sometimes a little bit better or show a little bit more.”
OK, so talking about leads … in winning the BMW Championship, Thomas now moves to No. 1 in FedExCup points. Under the new Starting Strokes format that will be used at the TOUR Championship, Thomas will start the tournament at 10 under. He’ll lead No. 2 Patrick Cantlay by two strokes, No. 3 Brooks Koepka by three shots, and so on, with the back end of the field 10 shots behind.
“I can certainly say 1000% I never slept on a Wednesday lead,” joked Thomas.
But he knows the opportunity is immense. He’s already won one FedExCup, back in 2017 when he won five times and established himself as one of the world’s top golfers. Only Tiger Woods has won multiple FedExCups. Thomas is in the driver’s seat to join him.
Just like six-shot leads on Sunday, though, there will be no guarantees at East Lake. Thomas is taking nothing for granted. Never in his golfing career, even as a junior, has he been given strokes before a tournament.
It will be a different format, but the mindset remains the same.
Close it out.
“There’s nobody in the history of this sport that has experienced it, so nobody knows,” Thomas said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be weird. It’s going to be different, I know that.
“I know that I’m in a lot better position than I was at the start of the week. I just have to be grateful and thankful for that.”
More thankful, no doubt, than any locker room advice he may receive the next few days. Don’t worry about JT – he still knows how to win.
Justin Thomas' news conference after winning the BMW Championship