One year ago, the first round of The PLAYERS Championship had to be cancelled after the first round, a result of being the tournament held when the NBA’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, setting off a chain reaction that put the entire sports world on hold for months. The PGA Tour would not re-start until June.
Today, the longest PLAYERS-less drought in its 46-year history came to an end, with a familiar face, world No. 3 Justin Thomas, taking the title in a gritty comeback effort where he tied the tournament’s low weekend.
Thomas’ triumph, the 14th of the precocious 27-year-old’s career, largely spoiled “The Rematch: Part II” between 47-year-old Brit Lee Westwood and power-hitting sensation Bryson DeChambeau, who were paired together in the final Sunday grouping for the second consecutive week on Tour. The action as a whole did not suffer however, as Thomas surged mid-round and had a series of dramatic clutch shots late, as a talented leaderboard failed to keep pace.
Thomas began his week at iconic TPC Sawgrass with a pedestrian 71-71 start, but then rocketed into tournament contention with a Saturday 8-under 64 that included birdies on his first four holes. The leader on Tour in birdie average, Thomas has a penchant for getting hot. At 10-under through 54 holes, he held a share of third place, three strokes back of Westwood, who has struggled to close in big events.
Early on, Thomas appeared to have cooled significantly from his scorching Saturday. He carded pars on his first seven holes before a three-putt bogey on the par-3 8th.
Fortunately for Thomas, he was still well within the mix. During that nondescript start, Westwood and DeChambeau were struggling to find consistency. On a par-4 4th hole that made Joe Everygolfer feel better about their own games, both players found the water on their drives, despite water not really being in play from the tee box.
DeChambeau went first, topping a cut 140 yards and wet. Westwood followed up with a brutal banana slice reminiscent of a 30 handicapper. DeChambeau, the 27-year-old reigning U.S. Open champ, dropped two strokes on the hole, while Westwood was able to salvage just a single bogey. Pride was a clear victim, though.
Then Saturday-JT made an emphatic return to the action. Thomas birdied the par-4 9th to get back to even for the day. He followed with another birdie on 10, an eagle on the par-5 11th, and another birdie on 12 to snag the solo lead from a tiring Westwood.
DeChambeau fell back and Westwood went stagnant, and two other contenders were in the fray as well, the recently-hot Paul Casey and steady veteran Brian Harman.
Thomas bogeyed 14, but got that stroke back with a birdie on the par-5 16th. Behind him, Westwood carded a disappointing par on 16 while DeChambeau roared back into the mix with an eagle. Thomas was one-up on Westwood and two-up on DeChambeau and Harman with two holes to play.
JT safely landed on the 17th island green, arguably the most famous hole in golf. A beautiful lag putt meant a par. Heading to the 18th hole, Thomas was in a position where a par meant a likely win, while a birdie definitely meant a win.
But behind him on 17, Westwood played his tee shot perhaps a little TOO safely, landing on the upper shelf, hitting his first putt past the hole, and missing the comeback for par. DeChambeau failed to card the birdie he needed. Their only hope was Thomas making a mess of 18.
It did not happen.
Thomas hit a beautiful tee shot that curved right to left around the outer edge of the water, his 12th fairway hit in 14 drives on the day. His approach landed in the fringe, his only “missed” Sunday green in regulation, and another tremendous lag putt gave him a two-footer for par and the almost definitely win. He made his par to shoot a 4-under 68.
Neither Westwood nor DeChambeau were able to pull off the unlikely eagle on the par-4 needed to extend the tournament. Westwood birdied to finish solo-second for the second consecutive week while DeChambeau, who outdueled Westwood a week ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, parred to tie Harman for third.
It was an emotional win for Thomas, who joined rare company with his 14th win before the age of 28, something that has only been matched by Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Johnny Miller. His first win of the 2021 season, he won three events in 18 starts in 2020.
The PLAYERS Championship
Final Scores: Top 10
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Justin Thomas -14 (-4)
2. Lee Westwood -13 (E)
3. Bryson DeChambeau -12 (-1)
3. Brian Harman -12 (-3)
5. Talor Gooch -11 (-5)
5. Paul Casey -11 (-2)
7. Corey Conners -10 (-6)
8. Shane Lowry -9 (-4)
9. Eight Players Tied -8
17. Sungjae Im -7 (-6)
22. Patrick Reed -5 (-1)
35. Phil Mickelson -3 (-1)
35. Jason Day -3 (+1)
41. Collin Morikawa -2 (-6)
48. Dustin Johnson -1 (-1)
48. Adam Scott -1 (-1)
48. Jordan Spieth -1 (+3)
How Justin Thomas Won The PLAYERS Championship
Thomas remarked after his win that Sunday was probably one of the best tee-to-green rounds he has ever had. The statistics back that up.
After gaining 5.5 strokes tee-to-green to the field on Saturday, he gained 5.6 on Sunday and led the field for the week. He was T25 for the week in greens in regulation, but was much, much better on the weekend than he had been the previous two days, hitting ten more greens between the two rounds.
The improvement was even more salient off the tees, where he went from hitting 12 fairways over his first 36 holes to 22 over his final 36.
Thomas had two eagles in addition to 21 birdies, the latter of which was third in the field for the week. He had just seven bogeys for the week, although did add one double bogey apiece on Thursday and Friday.
Thomas’ Winning Stats
Driving: 295.1 (T33)
Fairways: 34/56, 60.71% (T62)
Greens: 52/72, 72.22% (T25)
Putts/Per GIR: 89/1.712 (T20)
Scores: 2 Eagles, 21 Birdies, 40 Pars, 7 Bogeys, 2 Doubles
Off the Tee: 3.453 (10th)
Approach the Green: 6.404 (5th)
Putting: 1.632 (42nd)
Tee to Green: 12.873 (1st)
Total: 14.506 (1st)
What The PLAYERS Win Means For Thomas
With the victory, Thomas jumped Spanish phenom Jon Rahm into the No. 2 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking, and trails only reigning Tour Player of the Year Dustin Johnson for the top position, which he has held as recently as last summer. He also has the penultimate spot in the current FedExCup standings, behind only DeChambeau.
The win in the Tour’s flagship event further cements JT’s place among the favorites in this year’s majors season. The majors are the only place where his career arguably lags at the moment, as Thomas will likely face questions if he does not soon add a second major championship to his resume, with the first coming at the 2017 PGA Championship. He posted top 10s in both last year’s U.S. Open (T8) and Masters (4th).
Thomas’ 2020-21 Season
Cuts Made: 8
Wins: 1 (The PLAYERS)
Additional Top 10: 4
Earnings: $5,372,189 (1)
FedExCup Pts: 1,497 (2)
World Rank Before/After: 3/2
What It Means For Lee Westwood
Westwood took solo-second in as many weeks, adding two more close calls to a PGA Tour career that has seen an unbelievable amount. He has 25 wins on the European Tour, eighth all-time, but he has just two on the PGA Tour, with the last coming in a 2010 event where another player squandered a three-shot lead on the final hole.
It has been even more painful in the majors. Westwood has finished either second or third in nine(!) of them without a victory. He has 12 major top-5s total, and 19 top-10s. A PLAYERS Championship would have been considered the biggest of his career.
Still, it has been an impressive late-career resurgence for Westwood, who was more or less considered done contending years ago. A former Race to Dubai Champion and world No. 1, Westwood finds himself at No. 19 and feeling reborn with all four majors approaching.
Sunday’s Stars at TPC Sawgrass
Thomas’ 68 was one of the better rounds on Sunday, but the best was the 6-under 66 shot by four players. In regards to this leaderboard, the most significant of them came from Canada’s Corey Conners.
The 29-year-old had two birdies and an eagle among his first four holes on the back nine, reaching 6-under for the day before parring out. Conners held an early lead at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, staying in contention until later on Sunday and finishing solo-third.
At TPC Sawgrass, his 66 jumped him from T23rd to solo 7th, and the one-time Tour winner (2019 Valero Texas Open) has finished inside the top 25 in eight of his last ten starts, largely the result of tremendous iron play.
The most notable 66 had to have been the one shot by reigning PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa. The 24-year-old had been somewhat disappointing over the first three days of his PLAYERS debut, coming into the week winning a WGC event in his last start.
A Saturday 76 had Morikawa all the way back in 69th place, but after making the turn in even, the four-time Tour champion (in just 39 career starts) hit his highest gear, carding birdies on six back-nine holes. He jumped 28 spots into a share of 41st; a poor result by his standards, but the hot finish should put the rest of the Tour on alert.
The biggest Sunday jump came from an even younger player. Sungjae Im, a 22-year-old South Korean who never seems to take a week off, shot his 66 in spite of a double bogey on the par-4 15th.
Im’s round matched his 6-under effort on Friday, which included six straight birdies at one point. However, a 77 in round 3 prevented him from being a contender in his second attempt at TPC Sawgrass. He moved 31 spots up the final leaderboard, from T44 to T17.
Sunday’s Stumbles at The PLAYERS Championship
For the second straight week, little-known American Doug Ghim, who began the 2021 calendar year ranked 387th in the world, was a factor in a PGA Tour event going into Sunday. A week ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the 24-year-old was just four strokes out of the lead after 54 holes, only to struggle to a Sunday 81 and finish T36.
This week, he was at 10-under and in third place heading into the final round. He actually held up well for the most part, playing his best 16 holes in 1-under.
That should tell you how bad his other two holes were. A quadruple-bogey on the par-4 7th, the result of two balls in the water, ended his chances in a flash. He also doubled the par with a triple-bogey 6 on the famous 17th island green hole, three-putting after sending his tee shot into the water.
Ghim shot a 6-over 78 to drop 26 spots into a share of 29th.
Jordan Spieth has been the talk of the Tour as of late, snapping out of an extended drought with four consecutive top-15 finishes. A Friday 74 badly wounded his chances of snatching his first victory since 2017, but he was looking at another decent finish after a 68 in the third round.
Sunday, a theme of his lately, was his worst round, as a 3-over 75, in spite of four birdies, dropped him 26 spots into a share of 48th. Spieth finished T4 in his THE PLAYERS debut as a 20-year-old in 2014, but apparently used all his Sawgrass magic there, with four missed cuts, a T41, and a T48 since.
The biggest Sunday drop came from Chris Kirk, who had played himself into contention after a 65 in the second round. In eighth place and five strokes behind Westwood to start the day, the 35-year-old who has been attempting to resurrect his career after alcohol abuse issues cost him considerable time, was dreadful on Sunday, shooting a co field-high 7 over 79.
At the beginning of the week, Kirk likely would have been thrilled to know that he’d finish THE PLAYERS in a tie with Spieth, former Masters champ Adam Scott, and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. Nobody thought that would be a tie for 48th, though.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s a lot harder than when there weren’t fans here, that’s for sure, and I’m so happy they’re back, and I’m so happy to be a PLAYERS champion!
“I fought so hard today, I stayed patient; probably one of the best rounds of my life tee-to-green. I had total control of the ball, and was really hitting a lot of good putts, I just wasn’t hole-ing anything. I stayed patient, stayed patient, and I know I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff happen on TV in the past on this back nine, so I was glad to be on the better side of it this time.”
– Justin Thomas, THE PLAYERS Champion