Justin Thomas’ victory at last year’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, his first career major triumph, was the highlight of a five-win season that made him an easy choice for PGA Tour Player of the Year.
Beginning the final round two strokes out of Kevin Kisner’s lead, Thomas took a solo advantage after a birdie on the 13th hole and was unshakeable down the stretch. A birdie on the 17th hole put JT up by three with one hole to do, and engendered a two shot win over Francesco Molinari, Louis Oosthuizen, and Patrick Reed.
The 2017-18 season has been more of the same for Thomas, but despite a three-win campaign where he stands second to Dustin Johnson in both the World Rankings and FedExCup points, the 25-year-old had to answer questions about his game going into last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
His year had stagnated since a fourth-place finish at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in late March, and in nine worldwide starts between the Austin and Akron, Thomas had a just two top 10s – both T8s (the Memorial, and Open de France). He was a non factor in any of the year’s first three majors (T17, T25, MC), while his worst results had been his two most recent; a T56 at the Travelers Championship and a missed cut at The Open Championship.
Thomas breezed to victory at Firestone, however. Acquiring a three-shot advantage going into the final round, he did not blow away the Bridgestone field in Sunday’s finale, but stayed composed while the everyone in the chasing pack – Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Ian Poulter, among them – collapsed at some point during the final round. He won by four strokes.
Despite seven previous victories in the past 21 months, Thomas said he was nervous heading into Sunday’s finale in Ohio, but once settled in, he was able to rely on past experiences as a guide to an eighth visit to the winner’s circle in less than two years.
“It’s hard because you just — you take — I mean, you can learn just as much from winning a Major as I can winning in Akron last week or winning the Sony with a seven-shot lead on Sunday,” said Thomas.
“I mean, you can learn as much as you want from anything. It’s just the hard part is sometimes recognizing what you learned.
“I was really nervous going into Sunday. I don’t know why or what it was, but I was jittery. I was nervous that someone was going to play well, and I was going to have to play really well to win.
“I felt like it had been a little while since I’d won even though it hadn’t been that crazy long. But I was able to go back to those past experiences, and like the PGA last year when those last four or five holes, when I kind of started getting control of the tournament and just playing smart, playing aggressive to conservative lines and kind of picking our spots when we felt like we had them, and that’s just kind of what I was able to use, say, at a tournament like last week.”
“And then last year, you know, I remember looking up on 12th green, and I remember seeing there was six of us tied at 8 under, I think it was, and me with guys having anywhere between three and six holes left. When you have six people tied, it truly is anybody’s tournament.
“But I just, I felt like, if I didn’t make any mistakes coming in, a couple guys were going to make some mistakes and throw themselves out of it, and I just kind of needed to execute the shots when I needed to and just kind of sprinkle in maybe a birdie here or there.
“So that was something I learned from last year, just kind of staying patient and picking my spots.”
Coming in hot to his first major championship defense, it feels unlikely Thomas will not be up to the challenge, as he appears as unshakable as anyone on Tour. A repeat victory at Bellerive would mean a second career major, a 10th career victory, and all but clinch a second-straight PGA Tour Player of the Year award.