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A Crowded Leaderboard Couldn’t Keep Justin Thomas From a PGA Championship Win

Five players were tied for first on Sunday. Thomas emerged from the pack, and it wasn’t even all that close.

Justin Thomas Getty Images

Before Sunday at Quail Hollow, Justin Thomas’s most memorable major moment came two months ago in Wisconsin. On a June Saturday at Erin Hills, he sat down on his bag at the 18th green and stared at his shaking hands. Thomas flexed his arms, waiting for his playing partner, Jonathan Randolph, to finish the hole, then stepped up and made his eagle putt — his 10th hole under par that day. It capped off a round of 63 at the U.S. Open — breaking the lowest-score-to-par record for the tournament and sparking plenty of internet controversy from former pros about how the course was set up. It seemed like it could prove to be an iconic image — that if he performed well the next day, headlines on Monday morning would read “Justin Thomas Calmed Nerves and Took U.S. Open” — but it didn’t. He went 3-over on Sunday and finished tied for ninth, eight strokes back of winner Brooks Koepka. Thomas had himself a day, but he had it 24 hours too early.

At the PGA Championship this weekend, Thomas had a great round at the right time, and his Sunday was full of memorable moments — one in particular:

The 24-year-old won his first major championship on Sunday, his fifth PGA Tour win and his fourth this season (it’s also his first tour win in the mainland U.S., after picking up victories in Malaysia and Hawaii). His round was full of solid shots, thrilling putts, and his trademark grin/eyebrow raise, but he was also consistent, shooting under par for three of the four days, and that’s what put him in position to win.

Thomas came into Sunday sitting two strokes back of the leader, Kevin Kisner. Initially it looked like he would be in for another rough Sunday, as he bogeyed two of his first three holes, and the Elvis-like contortions his lower body was making early in the day weren’t encouraging.

But like the King, Thomas made the movements work for him and he birdied holes two, seven, and nine, finishing the front nine 1-under par and one stroke behind the leader, Hideki Matsuyama.

Then, at the par-5 10th, after a nearly 300-yard drive, a 318-yard approach shot, and a chip that left him 8 feet from the hole, Thomas lined up for another birdie putt. The putt edged along the left side of the hole and froze. The ball sat there long enough that Thomas walked away, and Nick Faldo and Dottie Pepper started breaking down what went wrong. But then, at least 10 seconds after the ball stopped moving, it dropped.

It was the rare assist that combined some help from gravity, the wind, the rotation of the earth, and … possibly even Lance Stephenson? That birdie brought him to minus-7, tying him for the lead, and after Thomas and his playing partner, Matsuyama, finished their next hole, there were five players tied for the lead — Thomas, Matsuyama, Kisner, Francesco Molinari, and Chris Stroud. But within 15 minutes, merely by being able to make par on 12, Thomas had the solo lead.

He went on to birdie 13, and following an incredible tee shot on the 17th — which is surrounded by water to the left and makes up the middle of Quail Hollow’s notorious Green Mile — he made a birdie, something that had been done only 32 other times over the weekend.

While Molinari, Patrick Reed, Louis Oosthuizen, Matsuyama, Kisner, and others fell away, Thomas had a clean back nine until a closing bogey on 18, and finished two ahead of the field at minus-8.

The Louisville kid got a lot of crowd love at the North Carolina course, and his Baker’s Bay vacation buddies Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth were waiting with hugs when he walked off the green. With the win, Thomas added his name to the rash of recent first-time major winners — 21 of 31 since the 2010 U.S. Open have been first-timers — but he won’t be content to stop at one.

“I’ve always kind of strived to be the state and the city’s best athlete, golfer,” Thomas told SB Nation’s Kyle Robbins during the U.S. Open, “whatever it may be.”

While Thomas will likely never be Louisville’s best athlete of all time (that is, after all, Muhammad Ali’s hometown), he is making his case as one of the best right now.

After the Open Championship, before a flight home with that tournament’s winner, Jordan Spieth, Thomas snapped a video of himself with the champ in the background, drinking from the Claret Jug. Now maybe we’ll get a reversal, this time with Spieth taking the video. After all, thanks to Jason Dufner, we know the Wanamaker Trophy can hold 43 beers — more than enough to share.