Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. The two biggest names in the history of golf are the only two players in PGA Tour history to have reached 13 career victories at a younger age than Justin Thomas.
The wildly accomplished 27-year-old Thomas notched that lucky win No. 13 by overcoming a four-stroke deficit in Memphis, and emerging from a crowded leaderboard late, most notably fending off defending champion Brooks Koepka, to finish at (coincidentally) 13-under par for the week, and win the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational by three strokes.
The marquee win at TPC Southwind was Thomas’ third of the 2020 season, and first since winning the Sentry Tournament of Champions in early January. His second career WGC victory gave him an overwhelming lead in the current FedExCup Standings with the playoffs looming later this month, and elevated him to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings for the first time since June of 2018.
Thomas began the final day in fifth place, four strokes behind Comeback Player of the Year lock Brendon Todd, who was attempting to transmute his Tour-leading fourth 54-hole lead into what would have been his third win of the season.
Todd was among the three of the four players who started ahead of Thomas, only to falter on Sunday. Thomas and Koepka filled the event’s leadership void, in addition to a number of other Tour heavyweights, the kind typically seen at these elite, limited-field WGC events.
Thomas birdied Nos. 2 and 3, and added two more gains on 7 and 9 to turn in 4-under, establishing himself as the odds-on betting favorite.
But Thomas was far from alone out front. In fact, at one point late in the day, five players were simultaneously tied for the lead at 11-under-par, guaranteeing an exciting finishing stretch.
This was an important week, not just because of WGC prestige and FedExCup positioning, but because next week is the PGA Championship, the much, much-anticipated first major of the COVID-obliterated year. The entire field was motivated to gain momentum for the almost comically-condensed major championship season.
At the closing set of holes, Koepka appeared to have the advantage, a scary prospect for the field given that he is a major savant (he is the two-time defending PGA Champion), and had been struggling this season until this week.
However, the script flipped when Koepka fell out of the lead after a shocking bogey-6 on the par-5 16th – the easiest hole on the course.
Just prior to this, Thomas got the break of the tournament. His drive on the par-4 15th went well left – an absolute no-no with a creek the field had been viciously avoiding – but it went clean through the trees, hit the cart path, and landed safely. Not only did that hole end up NOT costing him the tournament – as it easily could have, he ended up carding a birdie.
When he added another birdie on No. 16, he was two ahead with two to go. Unfortunately for Thomas, he still has fresh memories from three weeks ago, when he held a three-stroke advantage with three holes to go at the Workday Charity Open, and went on to lose in a playoff to upstart phenom Collin Morikawa.
Thomas finished par-par with the 18th hole being another escape, as his tee shot went well right and landed where a hospitality tent WOULD have been, had the event not been banned to spectators, as all the events have been since play resumed after a three-month pandemic layoff.
At that point, only Koepka was left as a challenger. Thomas had shot a 5-under 65, tied for the second best round of the final day.
And as Koepka does, usually in majors though – he has more career victories (4) in majors than non-majors (3) – he was looking unshakable in the big moment, bouncing back from the untimely bogey on 16 by nailing a 40-foot birdie putt on the par-4 17th, and needing another birdie on 18 to force a playoff.
The Koepka run lasted just one more swing of the club. His drive on the par-4 18th looked amazing on the pro-tracer, but it was not the shot for the hole: it landed in the water. From there, Koepka double-bogeyed, costing himself nearly half of a million dollars in earnings when he fell from solo-second to a four-way tie for second.
In that four-way, runner-up tie with Koepka was Daniel Berger, who won the recent Charles Schwab Challenge in June, and won this tournament twice before it became a WGC event; Tom Lewis, a little-known Englishman, who shot 13-under over the weekend (61-66); and the legendary Phil Mickelson, who had a bogey-free final round in his fourth event since turning 50.
Mickelson was Thomas’ final-round partner, which was something of a coincidence since filling in for Thomas’ ill caddie for the week was Jim “Bones” Mackay, who carried Mickelson’s bag for 25 years. He and Mickelson’s final event together had been Memphis three years earlier.
Thomas is on an elite career-trajectory, as he appears to be on his way to leading the Tour money list for the third time in the past four years, but one area where he is lagging well behind Jack and Tiger is majors. With just one major victory (2017 PGA), he is 17 behind Jack and 14 behind Tiger. However, he may have just established himself as the man to beat next week at Harding Park in San Francisco.
Final Top-10 Finishers
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Justin Thomas -13 (-5)
2. Daniel Berger -10 (-5)
2. Tom Lewis -10 (-4)
2. Phil Mickelson -10 (-3)
2. Brooks Koepka -10 (-1)
6. Xander Schauffele -9 (-4)
6. Jason Day -9 (-3)
6. Shane Lowry -9 (-3)
6. Chez Reavie -9 (-2)
6. Louis Oosthuizen -9 (-2)
6. Matthew Fitzpatrick -9 (-2)
Final Stat Leaders
Driving: Bryson DeChambeau (331.2) (T30)
Fairways: Chez Reavie (44/56, 78.6%)
Greens: Brooks Koepka (55/72, 76.4%)
Putts/GIR: Kevin Kisner (1.550)
Birdies: Tom Lewis (24)
How Justin Thomas Won WGC-FedEx Invitational
Thomas had significant scar tissue from what happened on the front side of the back-to-back Muirfield Village events last month, but did what he needed to do to get in the early mix at TPC Southwind, opening the tournament with a 4-under 66, and not losing his weekend composure after his pedestrian Friday even-par 70.
Thomas matched his opening-round 66 on Saturday and did a stroke better on Sunday, carding just a single final-round bogey.
His 19 birdies for the week tied for eighth in the field, and he only cancelled out six of them with bogeys. He led the field for the week in strokes gained: tee-to-green and strokes gained: total, and was second in strokes gained: approach-the-green. He was 55th in putting, but that is a bit misleading since that was almost entirely based on an exceptionally poor putting round on Friday.
For the season, he is a respectable 85th in strokes gained: putting, a significant increase from his ranking of 144th in the 2019 season.
Justin Thomas’ Winning Numbers
Driving: 295.5 (44th)
Fairways: 39/56, 69.64% (12th)
Greens: 51/72, 70.38% (7th)
Putts/Per GIR: 89/1.745 (45th)
Scores: 19 Birdies, 47 Pars, 6 Bogeys
Off the Tee: 2.303 (16th)
Approach the Green: 7.670 (2nd)
Putting: -1.881 (55th)
Tee to Green: 13.099 (1st)
Total: 11.218 (1st)
What Winning Means For Justin Thomas
Thomas remarked after his round that he had not been great coming from behind in the past, so this gives him newfound confidence in a whole other way of winning. He established himself as the clear front-runner for Tour Player of the Year – although with all three majors to go (British Open has been cancelled altogether), that position is hardly concrete. On the season, he now has nine top-10s in 14 season starts. Since mid-February, a missed cut at the Travelers Championship is his only finish worse than T18.
Getting back to No. 1 is nice, too, but he knows the biggest part of his legacy is still to come with majors. He needs more than the one he currently has if he wants to be mentioned in the same breath as the legends in the first line of this wrap-up.
Justin Thomas’ 2019-20 Season
Cuts Made: 11
Wins: 3 (CJ Cup, Sentry TofC, WGC-FedEx SJ)
Additional Top 10: 7
Earnings: $5,386,402 (1)
FedExCup Pts: 1,889 (1)
World Rank Before/After: 3/1
Daniel Berger, a college teammate of Brooks Koepka, struggled in 2018 and 2019, largely due to an injury, but has been on an absolute tear since February.
In seven starts since the beginning of 2020’s second month, the 27-year-old has six top-10s, with five of those being inside the top five. Since the Tour resumed, he has produced: WIN, T3, MC, and T2. He was exceptional again on Sunday, matching Thomas’ 5-under 65, and if not for a 72nd hole bogey, he may have been second alone. He has never contended at a major, but in his current form, nobody will be surprised if he gets into the mix next week.
After tying the course record with a 61 in a Saturday round that included 10 birdies, Tom Lewis (66) exploded out of the gates on Sunday with birdies on Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6 – and even held the co-lead late before two late bogeys dropped him into a tie for second-place on 10-under par.
It was the first top-10 on the PGA Tour for the 29-year-old Englishman, who now ranks 46th in the world. Lewis has two wins on the European Tour, and won a Korn Ferry Tour event just last season.
Only one player in the field shot a better round than Thomas’ 65 – and given recent form, it was not a surprise. Ryan Palmer, who finished second to Jon Rahm at The Memorial, and also contended at June’s RBC Heritage, was bogey-free on Sunday, shooting a 6-under 64. The stellar round moved the Texan 25 spots up the board, from T40 to T15.
Palmer has four career victories, with the most recent coming at last year’s Zurich Classic.
Brendon Todd’s season has been a remarkable display of resilience, as the two-time 2020 season winner was outside the top 2000(!) in the world rankings as recently as February of last year (he was up to 51st coming into this week), but his Sunday performance had to sting.
As mentioned earlier, the 35-year-old has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead four times this season. He successfully closed the door on the first two, and has struggled in the two since.
On Sunday, he shot a 5-over 75 which dropped him from first to T15 on the final board. He was in the same position at the Travelers Championship just over a month ago, following a third-round 61 with a Sunday 75 to finish T11.
Most troubling: in those two final-round flops, he combined for ZERO birdies.
Todd’s final-round partner, South Korea’s Byeong Hun An, was only marginally better, needing two late birdies to manage a 3-over 73 that dropped him from second place (he was one stroke out of the lead to begin the day) into a tie for 12th.
The 28-year-old is still looking for his first career victory.
The immensely popular Rickie Fowler again found it difficult to close a tournament. The 31-year-old was in the penultimate pairing, and just two strokes behind Todd to start the final day, but after birdies on Nos. 2 and 3, he fell apart, failing to finish under par on a single hole the rest of the day en route to a 3-over 73 and disappointing T15 finish.
Desperately needing something good heading into the major season – as he is still looking for his first major title, Fowler has just two top 10s in 12 starts on the season.
Rahm’s Debut as the No. 1
When he took The Memorial Tournament in a runaway two weeks ago, Jon Rahm – who holds the record for most weeks at No. 1 in the amateur rankings, was elevated to No. 1 in the professional world rankings for the first time.
The 25-year-old Spaniard made TPC Southwind his (very short-lived) debut performance as the world’s top golfer – and given his propensity for being streaky, there was good reason to believe that he would be in the championship mix.
Well… not this week.
At 1-over for the tournament, Rahm finished in a share of 52nd place, but he did save his best for Sunday, shooting a 4-under 66 to jump 15 spots up the final leaderboard. That could be notable in regards to his chances of winning his first major next week: the week before he won The Memorial, he was a mile out of contention through three rounds at the Workday Charity Classic before shooting a field-low 8-under 64 to move from T62 to T27.
Rahm’s biggest struggles in Memphis came with his short game, as he finished 68th in the 78-man field in strokes gained: around-the-green.
Grinding For the ‘W’
“It was a grind today. It was a place where I was four back, but I didn’t have too many people in front of me. I kept my head down, I tried to not look at too many leaderboards, and I really just played my own game.
“I just tried to get as many birdies as I could, if I got the ball in play off the tee, and I drove the ball probably as good as I ever have for the first 13 holes. Not so great the last four holes, but we got very, very lucky and fortunate on some of those breaks and we were able to capitalize, but that’s the kind of stuff that happens when you win.
“I was just glad to stay patient, stay in the moment, and not get ahead of myself, to make sure we got the ‘W’.”
– Justin Thomas, WGC-FedEx St Jude Champion