For most of the past four days, the front page of the leaderboard at the PGA Championship was largely devoid of players with considerable experience on the major championship landscape.
Yet, it was one of recent golf’s most prodigious winners that was able to make one of the biggest Sunday charges of all-time on Sunday, as Justin Thomas secured his 15th career PGA Tour victory, and second major, at Tulsa’s Southern Hills Country Club.
The 29-year-old’s previous major championship win was also at the PGA Championship, as he took the 2017 edition by two strokes at North Carolina’s famed Quail Hollow Club, appropriate given that the PGA is the major famous for the inclusion of club professionals, and that Thomas’ father and grandfather were club pros.
This year’s win in Oklahoma, via a three-hole aggregate playoff against Will Zalatoris, a 25-year-old who was making just his eighth career major start. Zalatoris has now finished T8 or better in five of his six most recent major starts. He has yet to win on the PGA Tour, but there seems little doubt that his time is coming soon.
The star of the day, however, was Thomas, a former world No. 1 who was mired in something of a slump, at least by his lofty standards. His last victory anywhere had come in March of 2021 at the PLAYERS Championship, and after having proved himself an incredible front-runner, his performance while in contention had fallen from 2017-2019, a stretch where he had tallied nine career wins.
And probably the most impressive aspect of this victory was that it had been accepted that Thomas had already lost his event, bringing about questions overnight about whether he had lost the edge that had made him such a great champion. Having “only” one major championship victory felt underwhelming, given his talent and resume.
Thomas started the PGA Championship impressively, opening with a pair of 3-under 67s to sit in third place through 36-holes, just two strokes behind Zalatoris. The strong start came in spite of being unfortunate to play in the more difficult wave, relative to the weather conditions.
The wheels came off on Saturday, though: paired in the penultimate group with 12-time Tour champion Bubba Watson, Thomas floundered with six bogeys – one more than he’d produced in the other three rounds combined – and just two birdies, falling seven strokes off the pace of 54-hole leader Mito Pereira of Chile, a 27-year-old playing in just his second career major.
With Thomas, and another former PGA Championship winner appearing to have ended their own quests for the 2022 Wanamaker Trophy in Rory McIlroy, the attention was largely on the world No. 100 Pereira, who at 9-under-par, held a three-stroke advantage on Zalatoris and England’s Matt Fitzpatrick, a successful player on the European Tour who was still looking for his first title on American soil.
Pereira held firm early, playing the first six holes in even-par, but after bogeys on 7 and 8, and another close call on 9, the Tour rookie turned to the back-nine clinging to a one stroke lead over Zalatoris and American Cameron Young, another rookie, who had only made three previous major starts.
Meanwhile, Thomas failed to make much of any kind of dent on the front nine. In fact, after a bogey on 3, Thomas fell eight(!) strokes behind Pereira and appeared destined for a decently-high finish, but another disappointing result. McIlroy, the winner of the 2012 and 2014 PGA Championships, started the day nine back of Pereira, and two behind Thomas, but exploded out of the gates with birdies on Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5.
McIlroy’s momentum stalled from there, and the Northern Irishman failed to card another birdie the rest of the way, but around the turn is when Thomas started to make his move. A birdie on No. 9 got him back to even-par for the day. He then added birdies on 11 and 12, the former coming by the way of a 65-foot putt, which created some buzz amid a star-less leaderboard. Given his ability to go low in a hurry, a sense at least began to develop that maybe if he could post a number in the clubhouse, he could make things interesting.
The lead groups helped him. When Pereira bogeyed 12, he was suddenly tied with Young for the lead, and although he immediately bounced back with a birdie on 13, he had another bogey on 14. With four holes to play, Pereira’s lead was just one on Young and Zalatoris, the latter of whom had made some incredible par and bogey saves but seemed to be running hot-and-cold with his putter, preventing him from building any kind of true momentum.
Thomas ended up posting the number he needed. A phenomenal shot out of a bunker on the par-4 17th led to a short birdie that got him to 5-under par, just one behind Pereira. He took second place alone when Zalatoris bogeyed the par-4 16th, and Young double-bogeyed it.
Feeling like he needed birdie on the difficult 18th to have a realistic chance, Thomas hit his approach right over the flag, landing ten feet away. He would fail to convert the birdie putt, but the par meant a Sunday 3-under 67, and the clubhouse lead at 5-under. Zalatoris joined him after a birdie on 17 and a gutty eight-foot par putt on 18. At that point, Thomas knew he would not win in regulation, but it would not even matter if Pereira could hold still.
Disaster then struck for Pereira on 18. With a one-stroke lead, he took driver out and after an awkward swing landed in a creek, water he later said he had not even been thinking of. He ended up carding his only hole of worse than bogey for the week: a double-bogey 6 which meant a Sunday 5-over 75. The playoff would include just Thomas and Zalatoris.
In the first playoff at the PGA Championship since 2011, and the first in any of the four majors since 2016, Thomas birdied the first two holes of the three-hole playoff, while Zalatoris played them birdie-par. Zalatoris then failed to get the birdie he needed on the third playoff hole, which was again on 18, and after landing safely on the green in two, Thomas two-putted for the win, placing an exclamation point at the end of an exciting, historic rally.
Pereira ended up tying with Young for third. Two strokes behind in a tie for fifth was Fitzpatrick, Englishman Tommy Fleetwood and American Chris Kirk. It was the fitting end to a tournament that just a year earlier, had seen 50-year-old Phil Mickelson become the oldest player in Tour history to win a major. Mickelson withdrew from this year’s event, the second consecutive major he had not played following controversial comments about an upcoming Saudi-based league.
PGA Championship: Top-10 Finishers
Pos-Player-To Par (Rd 4 Score)
1. Justin Thomas -5 (-3)
2. Will Zalatoris -5 (+1)
3. Cam Young -4 (+1)
3. Mito Pereira -4 (+5)
5. Tommy Fleetwood -3 (-3)
5. Chris Kirk -3 (+1)
5. Matt Fitzpatrick -3 (+3)
8. Rory McIlroy -2 (-2)
9. Brendan Steele -1 (-2)
9. Tom Hoge -1 (-1)
9. Abraham Ancer -1 (+3)
9. Seamus Power -1 (+2)
13. Tyrrell Hatton E (-2)
13. Justin Rose E (-2)
13. Cameron Smith E (-1)
13. Xander Schauffele E (E)
13. Max Homa E (+1)
20. Sam Burns +1 (+2)
20. Webb Simpson +1 (+2)
23. Shane Lowry +2 (-1)
23. Rickie Fowler +2 (E)
23. Joaquin Niemann +2 (+1)
23. Stewart Cink +2 (+4)
30. Tony Finau +3 (-2)
30. Bubba Watson +3 (+5)
34. Jordan Spieth +4 (-1)
34. Patrick Reed +4 (+2)
34. Matt Kuchar +4 (+3)
34. Gary Woodland +4 (+5)
41. Viktor Hovland +5 (E)
48. Jon Rahm +6 (-2)
48. Keegan Bradley +6 (+1)
55. Collin Morikawa +8 (E)
55. Francesco Molinari +8 (+1)
55. Jason Day +8 (+3)
55. Brooks Koepka +8 (+4)
60. Louis Oosthuizen +9 (+2)
60. Charl Schwartzel +9 (+2)
60. Hideki Matsuyama +9 (+3)
68. Billy Horschel +10 (-1)
How Justin Thomas Won The PGA Championship
Thomas’ final-round 67 tied two others for the lowest in the field, and his third 3-under round for the week was able to just enough make up for the damage caused by his difficult third round. He played the back-nine bogey free, limiting his mistakes, while the mistakes created from the largely inexperienced lead groups piled up. Pereira’s 18th hole implosion did not hurt.
For the week, Thomas’ 16 birdies was tied for third best in the field, and he failed to card anything worse than a bogey the entire week. He finished a surprising second in the field in strokes gained: putting, and was also second for the week in greens in regulation. Finishing 16th in strokes gained: tee-to-greens was imputed mostly to the poor Saturday round. He gained at least 2.7 strokes to the field in the other three rounds.
Justin Thomas’ Winning Stats
Driving: 331.1 (22nd)
Fairways: 34/56, 60% (51st)
Greens: 51/72, 70.3% (1st)
Putts/Per GIR: 89/1.756 (20th)
Scores: 13 Birdies, 40 Pars, 11 Bogeys
Off the Tee: 2.629 (17th)
Approach the Green: 2.104 (38th)
Putting: 6.313 (2nd)
Tee to Green: 8.000 (16th)
Total: 14.314 (1st)
What It Means For Thomas
The win is enormous for his legacy, as he will no longer have to face criticism for “only” one major championship victory. This should continue to give him confidence as he attempts to add similar success in the other three majors. His best Masters finish was a solo-fourth, while his best U.S. Open result was a T8, and his best Open Championship a T11.
Thomas jumped from ninth to fifth in the world rankings, just a small amount behind No. 4 Collin Morikawa, who has two major championship victories himself. He went from 15th to 4th in the FedExCup standings, although he is still far behind points leader Scottie Scheffler, a four-time winner on the season who was a surprising missed cut this week at Southern Hills.
Thomas’ 2021-22 Season
Cuts Made: 12
Wins: 1 (PGA)
Additional Top 10s: 7
Earnings: $5,821,111 (3rd)
FedExCup Pts: 1568 (4th)
World Rank Before/After: 9/5
Sunday’s Stars at Southern Hills
Tying Thomas’ Sunday 67d was Tommy Fleetwood, the 31-year-old who’s enjoyed considerable success overseas, and a collection of high finishes on the PGA Tour, but has not quite been able to capture that breakthrough win in the latter. Fleetwood’s round was actually in spite of carding four bogeys in a row at one point. He was still 2-over through 11, but then added a birdie on 12 and then four in a row on Nos. 14, 15, 16, and 17. He moved 12 spots up the final leaderboard from T17 to T5.
Kevin Streelman, who finished T41, shot the other 67 from Sunday.
Brendan Steele very quietly ended up sneaking inside the top-10. With four birdies on the back-nine, Steele shot a 2-under 68 and was the only player in the field under-par in both of his weekend rounds. He moved up 14 spots on Sunday from T23 to T9.
Reigning THE PLAYERS Championship winner Cameron Smith kept his impressive Tour season going. The Aussie had a 1-under 69 to move ten places up the final leaderboard from T23 to T13. He also moved up in the world rankings, reaching No. 3 for the first time in his career.
Sunday’s Stumbles at the PGA
Struggling a bit in the 2022 season after a breakthrough victory in a WGC event last summer, Abraham Ancer rode a strong putting performance over the first three rounds to get into Sunday contention, finding himself in fifth place at the 54-hole mark, and five strokes back of Pereira.
For the third consecutive round, though, Ancer’s result was worse than what he had the day prior. Three consecutive bogeys to close out his front nine put him too far back, and after parring each of the final nine holes, Ancer had shot a 3-over 73 that dropped him four spots to T9.
Bubba Watson had a tournament record-tying 7-under 63 in the second round to jump into early contention. However, the two-time Masters Champion, who reached a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship, failed to find any sort of success in the other three rounds. On Sunday, he shot a 5-over 75 that dropped him 23 spots from T7 to T30. Watson had double-bogey 5s on both front-nine par-3s.
Sunday’s biggest drop, and by a considerable margin, came from Australia’s Ryan Fox. After shooting even-par 70s in each of the first three rounds, Fox failed to card a single birdie in a 7-over 77 that plummeted him 37 spots from T17 to solo-54th.
“I played that back nine beautifully. The holes I didn’t make birdie or had birdie putts, I had really good looks, and I hit great putts that just didn’t go in, and the holes I missed the green, I was able to salvage a par, which is what you have to do to win a major. I kept telling myself I’ve been here before… although it’s been five years, it’s somewhere down in there.”
– Justin Thomas, PGA Championship Winner