CHARLOTTE – As we close the books on the 99th PGA Championship and the 2017 golf major championship season, there are several broader truths to celebrate than just Justin Thomas taking home the Wanamaker Trophy.
Sure, Thomas’s win is an apotheosis of sorts, his elevation to the ranks of golf’s current elite. He’s fulfilled all of the potential and promise he showed as not just a national, but international junior and college golf star. And Thomas was not just an outstanding individual golfer, but as a team player as well. He won an NCAA national championship and a Walker Cup, and in doing so he took home awards named after Jack Nicklaus and Byron Nelson...not just two of the greatest golfers, but two of the game’s greatest gentlemen.
Now at just 24 years old Thomas has won his first major championship, his fourth win this year, tied a major championship scoring record with a 63 earlier this year at the U.S. Open,(a record broken by Branden Grace last month at the Open Championship) and carded a 59 on the PGA Tour at the first round of the Sony Open, a tournament he won after battling Hideki Matsuyama down the stretch.
That experience certainly proved invaluable yesterday.
Thomas needed all he could muster to fend off not just Hideki, but a leaderboard choc-a-bloc full of superstars. At one point on the back nine there were five players tied for the lead and three more players one shot behind. To paraphrase Homer in “The Iliad,” no one knew whose side the golf gods were on. And Thomas’s roller-coaster ride through the final round may have been the zaniest round of all. His hair-raising, heart-stopping antics included:
1. He rolled in a twisting mid-length putt for bogey on the first hole. This was after a 350-yard drive reached what was thought to be an unreachable fairway bunker. This was the first of seven drives he would hit over 315 yards on the day.
“I was just trying to chunk and run it, and obviously thinned it. Through four shots on that hole, I pretty much couldn't have drawn up a worse start to my Sunday at the PGA Championship [but] I felt great with my putter all week,” he surmised. “After rolling that in, it just kind of calmed me down and kept me going.”
Like a true champion, he bounced back with a birdie on the next hole. What do you do when you suffer a setback? Respond!
2. He birdied the par-5 10th after hitting a tree off the tee (the same tree he hit on Friday en route to a bogey that day) and watching his putt hang tantalizingly on the edge of the cup before belatedly dropping in a la Tiger Woods’s famous chip-in at the 16th at Augusta National in the 2005 Masters. The birdie moved him to 7 under and helped him keep pace with Matsuyama who also birdied the hole to take the lead at 8 under.
"That tree kind of owed me one,” Thomas joked, “And I talk to my ball a lot any time it's going somewhere. I said that in the air, 'Get lucky, just spit it out for me, please' and it spit it out, and right in the middle of the fairway. I told Jimmy [his caddie] 'That's why you ask.'"
Nicely...pretty please...with sugar on top.
Thomas didn’t even see the birdie putt drop. The ball hung on the lip so long – anywhere between 9.5 and 12 seconds depending on how fast you count – Thomas was looking at Jimmy and asking “How did that not go in?” when it fell.
(For all you rules dweebs and wanna-be Slugger Whites out there, the rule is that the ten-second time limitation for the ball to drop begins once the player arrives at the golf ball, not when the player begins walking towards it.)
3. Thomas chipped in for birdie at the par-3 13th.
“That chip-in on 13 was probably the most berserk thing I’ve ever done on a golf course,” Thomas recalled.
4. He scrambled for a wild par on 14 after another wayward drive.
5. He birdies 17 –- as brutish a par 3 as one will find in major championship golf -- after absolutely scorching a 220-yard 6-iron and draining a difficult side-winding, 15-foot putt.
And Thomas did all this with the pack not just nipping at his heels but running along side him. He did not back into this win – this was no final round defensive golf plod. His closing 68 outran Francisco Molinari, Patrick Reed and his good friend Rickie Fowler who all shot 4-under 67s, as well as star-crossed Louis Oosthuizen who closed with a wild 70.
As an aside, that marks a “career runner-up slam” in majors for Oosthuizen. Louis turned what might seem a disappointment for some into one of incomparable hilarity as he tweeted video of himself lip-synching Andra Day’s “I Will Rise Up” using his phone as a microphone. Way to go, Shrek! That’s the kind of humility and grace that makes every golf fan glad he actually won a Claret Jug (the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews, for those of you scoring at home).
Just finished my career grand slam second's .. "I'll rise up" pic.twitter.com/083aRityWn
— Louis Oosthuizen (@Louis57TM) August 14, 2017
And with that, everyone is a Louis fan.
With his two-shot victory, Thomas not only places a stranglehold on a spot on the Ryder Cup for next year in France, but he’s a solid choice for Player of the Year. Someday, when he’s 40-ish, he’ll likely captain a Ryder Cup team. And how much will the world yearn for Thomas to lock horns with Hideki again at the Presidents Cup later this fall -- two of the hottest players in golf right now.
But Thomas’s win is also victory for golf in general. His is the kind of story that grows the game in the best way possible – by promoting the values the game is built upon:
Selflessness – Thomas is a third-generation golf pro. He’s part of a family that devoted their lives to golf. Learning golf’s ethos early on helped him not only win tournaments, but taught him how to be a life-long ambassador for the game. Here’s just one example: Thomas was so dedicated to an American victory in the 2016 Ryder Cup that he volunteered as a gopher so he could go and watch the inner workings of the event and learn the ropes so that when his turn came, he’d be ready for the pressure.
Friendship - That time capsule picture of Thomas (comically with a sandwich in his mouth) sitting with Jordan Spieth taken during the Evian Juniors Cup is a microcosm of golf. It’s the kind of photo that inspires every kid.
Moreover, his “Baker’s Bay Boy” buddies stuck around to share the moment with him. There were Fowler, Spieth and Bud Cauley – golf’s proper rejoinder to the Rat Pack - all waiting for him as he exited the 18th green.
“It's awesome and I think they know I would do the same for them. It's a cool little friendship we have,” he said gratefully. “I think that kind of shows, you know, where the game is right now, where all of us are. I mean, we obviously all want to win. We want to beat the other person. But if we can't win, we at least want to enjoy it with our friends.”
On that note, what a great year it was for sportsmanship in the game. We saw bookend brotherhood at the majors this year – Rose and Garcia walking off arm in arm at the Masters, now Thomas and the Rat Pack mugging with the Wanamaker Trophy at the PGA. Golf’s future and present are in the best possible hands. Did anyone miss Tiger Woods this weekend? This year?
And so the rising young gun who went to the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine last year to be a gopher and learn the ropes has now passed into the history books forever. His life, thus far, in full, has been given to golf, and that’s the kind of story that inspires everyone in the game, and makes not just kids, but whole families want to run out and play.
The family that plays together stays together, and when a family gives their lives to golf, good things happen not just for them, but for the game.