It happened on the 17th tee. Not the first time Justin Thomas stepped up to it at this week’s PGA Championship at Southern Hills, nor the second, third, or fourth. But the fifth time, in a three-hole playoff against Will Zalatoris, he had The Look.
If you’ve watched Thomas play over the years, you know the one. Part stank face, part concentration, part sheer force of will. It’s the face he often makes during match play, which, in a way, this was: Zalatoris and Thomas entered the playoff tied at 5-under after Mito Pereira’s 72nd-hole collapse, and both made birdie on the par-5 13th to get things underway. The only hole remaining after 17 was the par-4 18th, which played as the hardest hole on the course Sunday and delivered the fatal blow to Pereira’s disastrous day. So Thomas knew if he was going to seize an advantage, this would be the place. You don’t play it safe after making a face like that.
He smashed a 3-wood 288 yards toward the drivable green, and after trickling up a hill, the ball rolled to about 35 feet. It was a master class of a tee shot—a mulligan on the same shot he slightly mishit earlier in the day. But this time, there was no error. Only a club twirl.
Have a feeling we’ll be watching Justin Thomas’ drive on the second playoff hole for a very, very long time. pic.twitter.com/y5s2uQDg1d— GOLF on CBS ⛳ (@GOLFonCBS) May 23, 2022
“That was a nice one,” Thomas said after the round. “I mean, the wind off the left with a 3-wood isn’t exactly my favorite. I hit a beautiful shot in regulation in that bunker like we wanted to, and I hit essentially the same shot, just had a little bit more cut on it, and for it to go up on the green was nice to put probably a little bit of heat on Will.”
It certainly did. Zalatoris hit his tee shot just short of a greenside bunker and was able to make only par off the tight lie. And after co-pars at 18, Thomas earned the second PGA Championship of his career and his first major victory since the PGA at Quail Hollow in 2017.
It feels necessary to reiterate that Thomas did in fact win this tournament, because for much of the day, it seemed like the only possible outcome was for someone to lose it.
Pereira entered Sunday at 9-under par with a three-shot lead over Zalatoris and Matt Fitzpatrick. Behind those three sat Cameron Young (5-under), Abraham Ancer (4-under), and Seamus Power (3-under). Thomas was seven strokes back at 2-under, tied with Bubba Watson and Stewart Cink. And during the broadcast, CBS cited a data model that gave Thomas just a 1.2 percent chance of winning Sunday.
The fact that Thomas was even in position to enter a playoff is wild considering the circumstances, and it speaks both to his great performance—shooting a gritty 67, tied for the low round of the day with Tommy Fleetwood and Kevin Streelman—and the messy outings of every single other contender on the leaderboard.
“It was a bizarre day,” Thomas said. “It’s funny, I was asked earlier in the week about what lead is safe, and I said ‘no lead.’ I mean, [Southern Hills] is so tough.”
The rounds of Pereira (75), Zalatoris (71), Young (71), and Fitzpatrick (73) are perfect evidence of that. Zalatoris finished with four bogeys and three birdies on his card; Young was in the mix through the front nine before doubling 16; Fitzpatrick was 3-over on the day with plenty of painful mishaps; and Pereira had three bogeys to just one birdie on the front nine, then two more bogeys and a birdie on the back through 17. Just 19 players were under par on Sunday, compared to 59 at or over.
Thomas was a few groups ahead of the leaders, and after he posted his 67, it seemed like he might be a shot or two short of forcing a playoff. Pereira was one roll of a putt away from birdieing 17, and even without that extra help, he walked to 18 with a one-shot lead over Thomas and Zalatoris.
That’s when the moment got too big. Pereira hit a tee shot so awkward that someone who saw it in person told CBS’s Kyle Porter “it looked like he got electrocuted at impact.” The ball flew to the right and ultimately dribbled into the adjacent creek, costing Pereira a shot and his composure. The 54-hole leader couldn’t get back from that, eventually making double-bogey and finishing one-shot out of the playoff.
Thomas’s seven-stroke comeback is the third largest in major championship history. His playoff win is just the fifth at the PGA Championship since it went to the three-hole format in 2000—a list that includes Tiger Woods’s win over Bob May in 2000, Vijay Singh over Chris DiMarco and Justin Leonard in 2004, and Martin Kaymer over Watson in 2010. And he joins Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Woods, and Rory McIlroy as the only players with 15 PGA Tour wins and two majors before they hit 30 since 1945.
This second major has long eluded Thomas. He defended his first championship with a T6 finish at the 2018 PGA, followed that up with top 10s in both the 2020 Masters and U.S. Open, and earlier this year tallied a T8 at Augusta National. But despite having all the experience and skill necessary to add to his total, something’s been missing.
Maybe it was as simple as him not being able to string all the electrifying pieces of his game together across four pressure-packed rounds. Maybe circumstances didn’t shift in his favor when he needed them to. Maybe it was his mindset. He said after Sunday’s round that Jim “Bones” Mackay, the longtime caddie of Phil Mickelson who’s been working with Thomas since September, calmed him down on Saturday night, telling him, “You have to stop being so hard on yourself. You don’t have to be perfect. Keep staying positive so good stuff can happen.” (Advice that certainly came in handy after a shank at no. 6.)
But whatever was holding Thomas back is no more. His confident, collected, nothing-to-lose-except-everything shot on 17 proved that. And while Thomas has been a force to be reckoned with since he turned pro in 2013, for the first time in a long time, it seems he believes that himself.