Justin Thomas roared from seven shots back and passed nine players on Sunday to steal the 104th PGA Championship at Southern Hills Golf Club in Tulsa Oklahoma. Like Jack Nicklaus used to do so often in his heyday, Thomas rode an electrifying late Sunday charge to surge to 5-under for the tournament, then watched as overnight leader Mito Pereira completed one of the worst collapses in golf history with a soul-crushing double bogey on the last hole. Thomas’s final round 67 earned him a spot in a three-hole aggregate playoff with young rising star Will Zalatoris, whom he defeated by one stroke. Periera closed with a 75 and missed the playoff entirely.
“It’s funny, I was asked earlier in the week about what lead is safe, and I said, no lead. This place is so tough. But if you hit the fairways you can make birdies, and I stayed so patient, I just couldn’t believe I found myself in a playoff,” Thomas admitted.
With a rotation of the short par-5 13th followed by the driveable par-4 17th, and then the brutal 18th for the playoff, Thomas played the three holes 2-under, making birdies at 13 and 17, while Zalatoris could manage a single birdie at the 13th. It was Thomas’s second PGA Championship; he also won at Quail Hollow in 2017.
“It’s just awesome; I don’t know, really, how else to describe it other than that…that’s why I play golf. Like that’s why I practice. All the hours and everything and the time put in, you want to be in that scenario. You want to be in that situation: With the backdrop of the whole gallery up there, knowing that I’m in contention; I have a decent chance to win this tournament; probably one of the hardest, if not the hardest hole on the course,” he recalled. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s a full-body-chills-type of feeling.”
Thank goodness for Thomas’s heroics, because for most of the five hours of the final round, this was the tournament that begged to be forgotten. There have been some stellar golf championships in the nearly 20 years of majors I’ve covered. This was not one of them. Until JT saved the day, Sunday afternoon was rather flaccid, with players treading water instead of rising up the leaderboard.
We were told the night before that none of the four players in the two final groups had won a major. That was prescient; they all played like it, Pereira in particular. No one in contention made a move except Thomas; the nine golfers above him at the start of the day floundered. It was so frustrating at times, you wanted to grab the Wanamaker Trophy and run away screaming, “None of you gets this thing this year! None of you! Come back when you can play some clutch golf!”
Thomas looked doomed to the same fate early. He actually was as many as eight strokes behind after six holes; Periera stood 9-under on the seventh tee, while Thomas had dropped to minus-1. But then Periera, who at that point had a three shot lead over his nearest competitors and whose swing looked impregnable – he led the field in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation after three rounds – suddenly Pereira’s carriage turned into a pumpkin. He began spraying drives and approach shots, and slowly but steadily percolated backwards. Bogeys on seven, nine and 12 kept him from running away and hiding from the field.
The man who was a solid and consistent as Iron Byron for 63 holes was suddenly reduced to ham and egging his way around the back nine of a particularly dangerous major championship venue.
Ordinarily, that’s a disaster waiting to happen, but this was much worse; the Golf Gods were readying a lightning strike.
Nevertheless, throughout the back nine, Pereira somehow managed to stay in the lead he had held or had a share of since the second hole on Saturday. On 9, 10, and 11 he may have hit golf ball off line as far as Texas, Arkansas, and Kansas, but he got up and down from Fort Worth, Little Rock, and Topeka.
Still most eyes were on Zalatoris and Cameron Young, not Justin Thomas. But the two rising stars who played together at Wake Forest University were faring hardly better than Pereira. Twice one of them drew even with Pereira, and twice they immediately fell back. At the sixth, Zalatoris air-mailed the green by 20 yards, but saved an insane bogey with a miraculous up-and-down from off a concrete cart path just to keep it to one stroke lost.
You read that correctly. He played a lob wedge from off a cart path while short-sided to a tucked pin with the green running away from him. Crazier things have been reported, but not by reliable sources.
Yet it was his only play: inches from being out of bounds, he took an unplayable from underneath a bush, but with no backswing from the nearest point of grassy relief, he had no choice but to bear down and play the ball off a seam in the concrete walkway. In one of the highlight film shots of the week, Zalatoris did a good imitation of Jordan Spieth at the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, turned a triple bogey into a bogey, keeping him in the mix.
“That was just bizarre….We just had to have caught just a random down gust. I can hit the ball far but I can’t hit a 5-iron 235. It just was a very bizarre wind. It’s not like I pulled it and I rode the wind or anything,” he surmised. “But that up-and-down was the best up-and-down I’ve ever had. So it was from there on, you know, that was a pretty good momentum boost, honestly, even though it was bogey.
But Zalatoris still never caught Pereira until Pereira’s disaster at the 72nd hole. Similarly, Cameron Young caught Pereira for a moment on the back nine, but a double bogey on the 16th doomed his chances. And Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick, playing in the final group with Pereira, started fading early and was never a serious threat.
So although Thomas made an easy birdie at the short, driveable par-4 17th to get to 5-under, Pereira still managed to get to the 17th tee nursing a 1-shot lead over Thomas and two over Zalatoris.
And that’s when the Golf Gods cast their gaze Mito’s way.
On Saturday, Pereira was the only golfer in the field who chose not to drive the green at 17. Mind you, at a paltry 312 yards, some long hitters were flying 4-woods over the green, but on Saturday Mito laid up and made four, Not so on Sunday, he hauled out the driver. His tee shot appeared perfect, a high fade that carried the insidiously treacherous creek that runs throughout the course, landing on the flat in front of the green. But instead of kicking forward, it bounced weakly, soft and left, and finished in tongue of fairway between the rough and a bunker. From this uneven, but certainly not uncommon lie, Pereira caught his pitch just heavy enough to leave himself a testy 10-foot putt for birdie and a two stroke lead with one hole to play.
By all rights, he should have left that pitch stone dead to the hole. That’s a relatively ordinary shot, but by such microns – in this case one groove too steep – by such microns are major championships won and lost.
Up ahead, Justin Thomas had lipped out a birdie putt from the same 10 feet that would have put him at 6-under. After finishing one shot back – 5-under – and knowing that Pereira was on the easy 17th already one shot ahead, likely to be two, Thomas agonized. The pain on his face said it all: I think I came up short.
Had Pereira, who putted so beautifully most of the week, made that 10-footer, Thomas likely would have been right. Holding two shot lead at the last is an order of magnitude easier than holding a one shot lead, especially at Southern Hills, where only two of the seven previous major winners had made par at the 72nd hole: Tommy Bolt in 1958 and Tiger Woods in 2007.
But Pereira left his birdie putt one dimple short: one dimple.
You saw the ball teeter on the lip, almost as if peering into the hole before taking the plunge…and then it came to rest on the edge.
By such microns…
Leaking oil and in uncharted waters for a golfer playing in only his second major championship and his first in three long years, he came to the tee of the 498 yard, par-4 18th needing a par to win.
“He was nothing if not decisive,” noted broadcaster Dottie Pepper, after the Golf Gods delivered their thunderbolt and the dust had cleared. Pereira took driver, and with a horribly abbreviated swing steer-jobbed a slice into the creek along the right side of the fairway. Penalty.
Fellow Chilean countryman Joaquin Neimann’s horrified facial expression said it all: Mito??!! Aye, caramba!!
“On 18, I wasn’t even thinking about the water,” Pereira said. “I just wanted to put it in play, and I guess I aimed too far right. I just hit in the water.”
Meanwhile Zalatoris wouldn’t go away quietly. He bogeyed 12, and then incredibly turned birdie into bogey at 16 with a gut-wrenching three putt to drop to 4-under. But he had birdied the 17th to pull even with Thomas at 5-under and saved a wild par at 18 after blocking a one-handing a drive into tree trouble and missing the green short, but getting up and down. Suddenly he and Thomas headed to the practice range.
Pereira missed the green badly, his ball sunk deep in the greenside rough with the putting surface running away from him. Needing to hole it for four, his chip ran completely through the green and into the rough on the other side. After another miss, his collapse was complete, eerily similar to Phil Mickelson’s double bogey at the 72nd at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open.
Someone get Mito a Tito’s…a Tito’s Martini, a Tito’s Bloody Mary, even a Screwdriver, but something strong.
To his credit, Pereira was gallant and gracious in defeat.
“I just played really good golf, three days. Get a little bit of experience for this fourth in the final group on a tough course that you have to hit it well. If not, you’re going to shoot 5-over,” Pereira stated in retrospect. “I just didn’t hit it really well today, and for next time, I’ll just be a little bit more prepared.”
Thomas’s 67, tied for low round of the day with Spain’s Jon Rahm, was his third of the week, the other two coming Thursday-Friday as he battled the teeth of the windy maelstrom that blew most of the “late-early” half of the draw to perdition. Thomas also found the soft sand much to his liking converting 9 of 14 sand saves including all five he faced Sunday. Thomas tied John Mahaffey’s 1978 record comeback form seven strokes behind at the start of play on Sunday. It was the third largest comeback to win in major championship history as well.
It proves an old adage about competitive golf: you’re not going to play great all week. You just have to play well in the clutch. That’s how JT won this Wanamaker Trophy.
It was a record fifth PGA Championship for Southern Hills. The club has also hosted three U.S. Opens, but this was perhaps, a game-changer. The course is stronger than ever, and the new renovations make the players dream up creative shots like never before in the course’s illustrious history. Bring the U.S. Open back here as well.