Following a pedestrian four months of play, where he notched just one top 10 in eight events, reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year Justin Thomas was facing questions about the state of his game going into the PGA Championship, where he happens to be the defending champion.
On Sunday, Thomas answered those questions as resoundingly as he could: by blowing out the field at the tournament the week prior to his championship defense.
With a 1-under 69, Thomas came out on top of the very last WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and was challenged little from the field in a four-shot romp over Kyle Stanley.
Thomas had a three-stoke lead coming into Sunday’s final round of the year’s final WGC event, but it was a not comfortable advantage, given that a bevy of PGA heavyweights were on his tail. While Thomas did not go exceptionally low, he did not need to. He carded just one final-day bogey, while big-name contenders such as Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jon Rahm, and Rickie Fowler all struggled mightily.
FINAL TOP 10
POS-PLAYER-TO PAR (TODAY)
1. Justin Thomas -15 (-1)
2. Kyle Stanley -11 (-2)
3. Thorbjorn Olesen -10 (-6)
3. Dustin Johnson -10 (-6)
5. Brooks Koepka -9 (-3)
6. Aaron Wise -8 (-3)
6. Anirban Lahiri -8 (-2)
6. Patrick Cantlay -8 (-2)
6. Rory McIlroy -8 (+3)
10. Ian Poulter -7 (+4)
10. Jason Day -7 (+3)
10. Tony Finau -7 (-2)
10. Si Woo Kim -7 (-1)
POS-PLAYER-TO PAR (TODAY)
14. Tommy Fleetwood -6 (+1)
14. Matt Kuchar -6 (-1)
17. Jon Rahm -5 (+3)
17. Rickie Fowler -5 (+3)
24. Webb Simpson -3 (+2)
24. Phil Mickelson -3 (E)
28. Patrick Reed -2 (+2)
31. Tiger Woods E (+3)
31. Bubba Watson E (+3)
39. Hideki Matsuyama +1 (+2)
39. Francesco Molinari +1 (-1)
39. Sergio Garcia +1 (+5)
60. Jordan Spieth +5 (+4)
68. Xander Schauffele +12 (+8)
FINAL-ROUND HIGHLIGHTS: WGC-BRIDGESTONE INVITATIONAL
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HOW JUSTIN THOMAS WON THE WGC-BRIDGESTONE INVITATIONAL
Among the best on Tour in going low, Thomas just needed to hold steady on a difficult day. With two birdies, 15 pars, and one bogey, the final day quickly became a snoozer from a competitive standpoint.
Thomas birdied the par-5 second hole, and then played the last seven holes of the front nine in 1-over, while his final group partner McIlroy bogeyed Nos. 5, 8, and 9 to fall well back at the turn.
The closest anyone came to making a serious move on Thomas’ lead was World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who birdied seven of his first 10 holes, but he was just too far back to make the leader exceptionally uncomfortable. A bogey-free 1-under back nine was more than enough for Thomas to win going away.
Important on a shotmaker’s course like Firestone Country Club, Thomas was dialed-in with his irons all week, leading the field in strokes gained: approach-the-green and second in greens in regulation.
With his irons consistently leading to more opportunities on the greens, Thomas was able to finish fourth in the field in strokes gained: putting.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR JUSTIN THOMAS
The WGC-Bridgestone victory could not come at a better time for the 25-year-old Thomas. He won twice early in the year, but since a solo-fourth at the WGC-Match Play, which occurred two weeks before The Masters, he had not contended anywhere. His game looked especially off over his last two starts, a T56 at the Travelers Championship and a missed cut at The Open Championship.
Now, he carries considerable momentum to Bellerive Country Club for his PGA Championship defense.
It was Thomas’ ninth career victory in 112 events, with eight of those wins coming in his last 42 starts. He joins Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson as the only three-time winners on Tour this year, and he rises back to the No. 2 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings, where he trails only Johnson.
STARRING ON SUNDAY
Among the later-scheduled groups, Thomas was the closest thing to a standout, but several other players took advantage of softer course conditions earlier in the day.
It all started with a birdie binge from former Masters Champion Charl Schwartzel, who reached 8-under on his day through 14 holes before finishing with a 7-under 63 that vaulted him a field-high 36 spots up the final leaderboard, into a tie for 31st place.
Eight of Schwartzel’s 15 holes that were birdie or better for the week came on the final day.
Fresh off a relatively dominant victory at last week’s RBC Canadian Open, Dustin Johnson appeared to have something of a hangover with two mediocre rounds to his week at Firestone. However, the man who ranks second in all-time WGC victories (5), played better on Saturday, and was MUCH better on Sunday, absolutely tearing up the front nine with six birdies and no bogeys.
He cooled off after a birdie on 10, but was still a Sunday standout, shooting a 6-under 64 that moved him from 22nd to 3rd on the final leaderboard, his 10th top-10 finish in 15 events this season.
Tying DJ with a final-round 64, also to move into third place, was Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen.
With four birdies over his last eight holes, Olesen scored his best career finish in a WGC event, and kept a recent hot streak going.
The 28-year-old has now finished T12 or better in five of his last seven starts worldwide, with a victory and a runner-up in that span.
STUMBLING TO THE FINISH
Nearly everyone who began the day near the top of the leaderboard, except for Justin Thomas, struggled to figure out Firestone Country Club in its final day as a PGA Tour event.
McIlroy put himself in great position with rounds of 65-67-67 in the first three rounds, but the man who has been absurdly inconsistent this year could not avoid another high number. With just two birdies to five bogeys, McIlroy shot a 3-over 73 and needed a late birdie just to stay inside the top 10.
Rory’s biggest problems were off the tees, hitting just three fairways on Sunday, although one of those was a behemoth 420-yard drive on the par-5 16th “Monster” hole.
Jason Day made a little noise with birdies on Nos. 10, 11, and 12 to reach 2-under par for the day and 12 under for the week, but he then went on to play his next five holes in 5-over par to match McIlroy’s 73.
A T10 is just Day’s fifth top 10 of the year, although he does have two victories.
Out-struggling McIlroy and Day in the final round was Ian Poulter, who bogeyed four of his first seven holes in a 4-over 74 effort. Poulter joined Day in 10th place, but both will be disappointed leaving Akron.
Golf fans had a lot of hope for the incredibly popular Tiger Woods this week. He is an eight-time winner at the WGC-Bridgestone, including the first three ever held, and contended at The Open Championship at Carnoustie in his last start.
Tiger gave himself a shot by opening 66-68, but got knocked way off the pace with a third-round 73.
His fourth round? Mostly terrible. Tiger’s first career round at Firestone was a 4-under 66 in the 1999 edition, to take the solo lead, but his final career round was seven strokes worse: a 3-over 73 that left him in a tie for 31st.
He birdied his first two holes, and carded four more by the time his round was over, but a shockingly errant tee-to-green game led to five bogeys and two double-bogeys.
Woods had just one par on his back nine. It was not the what the world No. 50 was looking for, but he still has his spirits up for next week’s PGA Championship, where he is likely to be among the betting favorites.
“I’m glad I finally played well around here; just in time for it to leave, but I got a little choked up when I saw Grandma and Grandpa over there.”
– Justin Thomas