TULSA, Okla. — Major championships are valuable. There are around 550 individual entries to win the biggest events of the year, but only four trophies handed out over as many months. Less than 1% of those who play all four major tournaments each year leave fully satisfied.
For a while at the 2022 PGA Championship, it looked like someone would walk away not just satisfied but also shocked. Heading into Sunday’s final round at Southern Hills Country Club, which was hosting a major tournament for the eighth time, the top four in the standings – Mito Pereira, Matt Fitzpatrick, Will Zalatoris and Cameron Young – combined for zero PGA Tour wins and just five major top 10s in their careers.
A win on Sunday would have changed the lives of any of the four. For three-quarters of this group, their Korn Ferry Tour days are still so fresh that internalizing this monumental moment must have felt like trying to capture water with their hands.
Justin Thomas knew it.
After shooting 67-67-74 with a dizzying display of ball-striking that was less of a mechanical move than an artistic arrangement, he was seven strokes behind going into Sunday’s final round. Still, he was more optimistic than he thought.
“I just remember how hard it was, and I remember how hard it is to win now,” Thomas said. “So I knew I was going to be nervous, and I knew they would feel exactly the same.”
JT played late Thursday and early Friday in a wave that was two strokes harder than the other side. His golf was so good the first two days that he beat everyone but one player in that tie by five strokes.
It was all a show. Thomas moved his ball with such poise at the start of the week that it looked like Jim “Bones” Mackay was steering it with a remote control. Most modern gamers choose to paint by numbers. When Thomas grabs the vast array of brushes at his disposal, he might as well make room in the museum.
Still, he dragged on the weekend because of that tough draw. It would get worse before it got better. His 74 on Saturday left him 2 under and T7, seven behind Pereira, the 54-hole leader. Thomas was almost buried on set. It seemed that one of the surprisingly rare real opportunities he’d had to win a major was gone before it fully materialized.
Thomas was among the last men on the court Saturday night, but was more optimistic than expected after 74 appeared to snatch one of those precious runs for another major trophy from some of the best hands in professional golf.
He hit balls for a while and got some encouraging words from Bones, who told JT he needed to stop being so down on himself. Thomas seemed to take it to heart. He ended his Saturday by signing flag after flag for the long-suffering children who had waited all day hoping for his signature.
“I left here in an awesome state of mind,” Thomas said. “I think [I was] the last player here. … It was so peaceful. It was almost strange how beautiful it was outside, and it’s not many times after shooting 4 Saturday of a major that I’ve left in as good a frame of mind as I was. [here].”
Thomas started low on Sunday and shot a par 35 on the front nine. After paring at No. 10 to stay at 2 cents for the week, Data Golf pinned its probability of winning at 0.4%. In other words, it would be a miracle.
Then something happened that reminded everyone of his last major win, the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. JT ran in a 65-foot putt on No. 11, half-bowed to the crowd, and tipped his hat. It was a birdie redux on his last trick the last time he won the Wanamaker Trophy.
Thomas also birdied at No. 12 and then missed a birdie putt at No. 15 that would have knocked the house down. He felt at the time that it would be a move he would come back to with regret.
A top-down birdie at the 17th par-4 driveable — which bones said was harder than it looked – brought JT to 5 under with the mighty No. 18 on hold. Thomas ripped that head-high cutter off the tee and hit a championship-caliber iron on a right-hand pin.
“It’s just awesome,” Thomas said. “I don’t know, really, how to describe it other than that. I mean, this 18-iron shot in the regulation, like, that’s why I play golf. Like, that’s why I practice “All the hours and everything and the time you want to be in this scenario. You want to be in this situation. With the backdrop of the whole gallery up there, knowing that I’m in the running.”
“It’s hard to explain, but it’s a whole body shivering type feeling.”
Thomas somehow missed a putt which again looked expensive. He played numbers 17 and 18 at his best, but he didn’t know if his third 67 in four rounds would be enough. JT headed to the scoring tent – where he leaned with his legs wide apart on a table as the leader of the 5-under club – to watch the theater unfold behind him on the course.
Just before heading to a more private area to watch the tournament end, Thomas looked up and didn’t say to anyone in particular, “I hope for the best, man.”
He got it.
Zalatoris finished 1 on the back nine with a clutch birdie at the last to squeak into the house alongside Thomas at 5 under.
After Pereira, who played the first seven holes of the last nine in 1, left a birdie putt on the No. 17 one rotation away from the cup, the 54-hole leader went to the 18th with a par to win. His drive on the final hole of the tournament felt like a check-swing and prompted someone I was walking beside to say, “Looks like he got electrocuted on impact.”
Pereira made aon the 18th and completely missed the playoffs.
Everything happens quickly at the end of the majors.
Thomas was taken to the other end of the driving range where the players had been hitting all week. There was not a divot to be found.
CBS announcer Colt Knost fed him as the game ended in settlement. From there he was put on a cart and driven to the 13th tee where the three-hole playoff began.
An impromptu parade broke out in the meantime. Vocals of “JT! JT!” mixed with the particular smell you only get in the majors – an amalgamation of mud, sweat and burger smoke. He settled down during the playoffs.
Thomas and Zalatoris traded birdies on the par-5 13th. JT’s father, Mike, looked ready to raise the roof in front of the crowd that had surrounded this green.
Just like that, a mediocre middle finger had suddenly become an instant classic.
As Thomas walked towards the 17, an onlooker shouted, “Mom, he’s a bad man.” It was before JT landed the shot of the tournament on his penultimate hole: a high-hanging missile that flipped, touched the front of the green and settled 34 feet from the cup. He putt two for a birdie while Zalatoris pared.
Bones got into JT’s ear on the 18th tee like that famous GIF Draymond Green-Kevin Durant, and Thomas delivered another punch for par on the toughest hole of the week.
The third-biggest 54-hole comeback in major championship history — and the biggest of this century — was complete. Zalatoris took off his cap and clapped his hands from a distance as the normally placid Thomas collapsed.
“I just think it’s so hard to win,” Thomas said when asked about the emotion afterwards. “Like, it is. I legitimately think it’s harder to win now than it was when I first went out on the Tour. … I think it’s easy to start letting doubt creep in and just kind of [think], like, ‘Okay, what’s going to happen? When is this going to happen? East it will happen?’
“I had just gone up 18 in the playoffs, and I knew it wasn’t over, but I looked up and wanted to enjoy it because you don’t know when and if it’s going to happen again. It’s so amazing, fresh feeling that you just want to enjoy it.”
Majors are valuable. There are so few of them and so many great players are vying to bring them home. Thomas learned that in the years between his 2017 PGA Championship and this one, hence his emotion on 18. After winning your first major at the tender age of 24, you still feel like they’re going start to flow. And then they don’t.
The past five years have brought an absurd streak of champions. Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Collin Morikwa, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau have all won at least one since Thomas won his last – a few more than one.
In a career, even star golfers can only get a handful of real Sunday afternoon runs at major championships. If they’re lucky.
As Thomas made his way to the clubhouse after finishing with a 275 in regulation, he walked past the PGA of America employees tasked with handling the oversized Wanamaker Trophy.
The handler in his polo shirt and vest carried that 27-pound, 28-inch-tall cup as Thomas rode beside him. The trophy was sheathed in a protective blue velvet cover. It wasn’t quite time.
For another 20 minutes, it seemed like this moment would be a metaphor for Thomas’ day and this part of his career.
He played so well for several years without any big games to show. He had played beautifully for three consecutive days and so poorly for one. The men carrying the trophy raced down the hill towards those who were still ahead of Thomas in the standings and had yet to finish.
No one took the trophy cover off and JT got his playoffs.
By the time he climbed No 18 for the second time on Sunday, the Wanamaker was on display for all to see. It reflected the setting sun in an Oklahoma sky that last saw a major championship won by Tiger Woods in 2007.
Thomas was still a teenager at the time, and the idea that he and Tiger would one day be close friends was surely an unfathomable dream for him at the time. Now they are the last two golfers to win major tournaments at Southern Hills.
As Thomas made his way through the crowd of people surrounding No 18, the uncovered trophy gleamed and waited to be held.
JT had another valuable middle finger himself.