No Need to Doubt Thomas after American Lands US PGA Title
WHILE many of those around him were losing their heads and their composure, Justin Thomas kept his and emerged at the end of four brutal days at Quail Hollow as the 2017 US PGA champion. It shouldn't surprise anybody - it was his fourth victory in a season that had already seen him shoot a 59 at the Sony Open and a record-equalling 63 in the US Open at Erin Hills.
There was also his ill-judged fashion faux-as at The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, when he thought it would be a good idea to play in a shirt and tie during the first round. He shot a 67 on that occasion, but the golfing gods took their revenge on him on day two when he missed the cut after a horrific round of golf that included a nine.
However, all of that was forgotten at Quail Hollow. Thomas began the day in fourth place on five under par but after slipping down the leaderboard at the US Open, most pundits expected a final-round shootout between Kevin Kisner, the 54-hole leader, and Hideki Matsuyama, the world No 3, but Kisner laboured to a 74 and Matsuyama never really had his A game with him and had to settle for a 72 and a four-round total of 279, five under par.
Thomas actually began his round with a dropped shot at the first hole. He bounced straight back with a birdie at the second but when another stroke went at the third it looked like it wasn't going to be his day after all.
It looked like nobody wanted to win the season's final major - at one point five players were tied for the lead. In truth, we witnessed some brilliant play.
Francesco Molinari played the front nine in two under par and after a bogey at the 10th he reeled off four birdies in five holes and was right in the mix. His chances came to an end when he dropped a shot at the 16th and he had to settle for a 67 and a 72-hole total of 278, six under par. He was joined on that mark by Patrick Reed, at last showing signs of his best form after a miserable season. Reed had four birdies in his front nine and three more at the 10th, 14th and 15th but he was one of many players in the field to come to grief at the 18th. Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, completed the group on six under after holed a huge putt on the final green.
There was also a late run from Rickie Fowler. He reached the turn in level par and at just one under for the tournament he was seemingly out of it. But he ignited the crowd and his own hopes with birdies at the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th to move to five under.
One of the highlights of Thomas' final round came at the tenth hole, when his birdie putt hung on the edge of the cup for fully eight seconds before finally toppling in. The crowd went nuts, and the 24-year-old finally started to believed that maybe, just maybe, this was going to be his day..
Playing in the penultimate group, Thomas chipped in for a birdie at the 13th and added another at the 17th, which meant he went to the final tee leading by three. But, as Jason Day will readily testify, the 18th is a potential card-wrecker - the Australian finished his third round with a quarduple-bogey eight that ended his hopes.
Thomas drove into a fairway bunker and found a horrible lie, but he kept his cool and settled for a bogey five. His final round of 68 left him on 276, eight under par.
Afterwards, he was delighted with what he had achieved. “It was a crazy day. It had to be an unbelievable watching today in terms of spectating and sitting at home watching on TV," Thomas said.
"Walking up to the 12th green, there were five of us at seven under. I had no idea it was that close. I kind of thought Hideki and I were at around 7 or 8 or whatever he was and then some other guys. Then I saw Patrick Reed was playing well. I saw Rickie was kind of making a run. I saw Francesco was up there, and then obviously Kisner and [Chris] Stroud behind us. To see that was kind of crazy. And then that chip-in on 13 was probably the most berserk I've ever gone on the golf course. I'm kind of interested to see how I looked for that. It was nice.
“It was something that obviously as a kid growing up, being a golf fan, you want to win all the majors. You want to win any major. For me, the PGA Championship definitely had a special place in my heart, and maybe a special drive, I guess you could say. Like I said, I want to win every tournament I play in. I want to try to win every major.”
For Molinari, finishing joint second was easily his best performance in a major. “It was a great day, I started very well with a birdie at the first. I wasn't really sure what to expect from the leaders," said the Italian. "I thought maybe seven or eight under would have been the winning score. But I gave it a go. It’s a shame about 16, but I hit a really good putt and just missed on the left and I’m very, very proud of the way I played today.
“I had to look at the leaderboard on 13, and where I was at more or less, I saw that I needed at least two more birdies. Seven or eight under was looking likely to be the winning score. So I gave it my best and I'm very happy with what I did.
“It would have been nice to start the day maybe a couple of shots closer to the leaders, but it was great getting to the last three holes tied for the lead. It's what you practice for and what you train for. Hopefully I'll get more soon.”
Reed was happy just to be back in contention. “It's one of those rounds, that front nine, where it's just kind of up-and-down the whole day. At the end of the day, there were just too many missed putts today. A lot of putts burned edges and really the biggest thing is Friday – to only hit five greens in 18 holes and to somehow only hit one green through 12 holes and be one-over par. I was scrambling like crazy. I was making a lot of great up-and-downs, but it's hard to win a golf tournament, especially a major, if you only hit five greens in one day.”
Oosthuizen was left to rue yet another poor week on the greens. “I didn't really make any putts the whole round. The only putt I made was on the last hole. Two loose shots on 10 and 11 probably cost me one, maybe two shots. I gave it everything I had coming in. I left myself with an impossible first putt on 16 and could have done better than that, but three-putted. And then I hit it close on 17, trying to make birdie. I hit one good putt on 18 though. My arm was tight this morning and we worked that out and it was fine.”
Rory McIlroy finished with a best-of-the-week 68 but a one-over total of 285 was not what he had in mind. He played well in flashes but there are still too many loose shots in his bag just now, and his short putting remains a concern. It is now three years since his last major victory and he clearly has some soul searching to do before he attempts to complete his career grand slam at The Masters in April 2017.
This tournament was meant to be a showdown between McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, but the American struggled all week and eventually finished one behind McIlroy.
Special mention must be made of Jordan Smith. In his rookie season on the European Tour, the young Englishman already has a victory to his credit and he performed brilliantly at Quail Hollow, a final round of 68 securing him a tie for ninth place.
It was a strange week. Quail Hollow is a sensational golf course but the changes made since last year's Wells Fargo Championship were not universally popular with the players. The greens were hard and fast and, at times, were almost unplayable, and the pace of play was farcically slow.
But we did learn one thing from the week - Justin Thomas is the real deal. A player who is quick to get upset with himself when things are not going to plan, he learnt from his experience at the US Open “I felt like that at the US Open, although Brooks [Koepka] had an unbelievable round, I didn’t feel like I had my best stuff that day,” he said. “But I still learnt I needed to be a little bit more patient to have a better finish.
“Obviously you play to win and I had a great opportunity to win today but I knew that no matter what my game was at on the first tee, I just needed to be patient. I felt like I had the game to get it done, it was just a matter of if I did or not.”
It is worth noting that although Thomas weighs less than 11 stones, he is one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour, and he knows how to score. Nobody has recorded more eagles this year, and just two players have managed more birdies. It has to be said the future of American golf looks to be in sensational shape right now - Koepka, Spieth and Thomas are just three of a gifted generation that also includes the likes of Reed, Fowler, Daniel Berger and many more.
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