If you hadn’t really been aware of Justin Thomas’s existence before he hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy at the PGA Championship a couple of weeks back, then no one would hold that against you. To be entirely candid, I didn’t either, at least not until 2016 when he defended his title at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. The PGA Tour’s solitary event in south Asia is always of special interest simply because of the Asian contingent in the mix, but last year it was even more so: leading with a score of 19-under after three rounds, Anirban Lahiri looked set to get his maiden win on the PGA Tour. Thomas, who had led for the first two days, had dropped off the pace: trailing Lahiri by four strokes after the penultimate day, he wasn’t considered a threat. Thomas proceeded to birdie six of his first 10 holes to wrest back the lead, and went on to win by three strokes over Hideki Matsuyama and achieve a rare defense of a PGA Tour title. The world sat up and took notice.
This year, Thomas has gone to reaffirm his seat at the high table: first by beating a field of established winners at the SBS Tournament of Champions, and then, if that weren’t enough, by notching up a victory the very next week at the Sony Open in Hawaii. Thomas shot a 59 in the opening round of the latter—the youngest player ever and only the seventh overall to shoot that score—to set the pace, which he never relinquished, finishing with an astounding 27-under par that stands as the PGA Tour’s 72-hole scoring record. He signalled his intent to win the big ones by shooting another record score—a nine-under 63—at a devilishly hard Erin Hills in this year’s US Open. By now, the world, including your columnist, was rapt in attention.
In retrospect, there were plenty of portents signalling a repeat performance by Thomas at the PGA Championship earlier this month. Much like CIMB in 2016, an Asian seemed poised for his first Major victory, and it happened to be the same guy Thomas denied in Malaysia—Matsuyama. Trailing the Japanese player by one stroke, and the leader Kevin Kisner by two, going into the final round, Thomas’s third round had been a battle of attrition. “I would definitely go C, more towards the C side than B side,” he responded to a question about whether his ‘A’ game had deserted him.. Scrambling to find his swing and game, the two-under 69 Thomas managed to salvage in his third round was nothing short of stunning. On the eve of the final day’s play, Thomas spoke revealingly about getting the job done when the chips were down. “I think that’s why I feel like I’m ready to win a major championship now versus last year, I probably didn’t have that,” Thomas said. “Because you are going to have a day, usually at least a day in the tournament where you don’t have your best. You are not hitting it well. It’s what you can do with it.” “That’s what Tiger (Woods) did so well. He won tournaments by five or six with his B game or C game. It’s about managing it around here, trying to get it around. What I did today was definitely a confidence boost. It’s not the same as playing great… but I’ll definitely take it,” Thomas signed off on Saturday evening.
Neither Matsuyama, nor Thomas, paired together on Sunday, looked like either was going to emerge as the champion. Matsuyama struggled constantly with his swing and distance control, and looked like a man struggling under pressure. Choking would be too harsh a term, but Matsuyama’s play, plagued by bad decisions and inconsistent swings, certainly appeared to be more afflicted by a mental issue than anything else. Thomas, on the other hand, couldn’t get a putt to drop until he holed a 35-footer for birdie on the ninth. The tenth yielded yet another birdie, albeit reluctantly when the ball finally dropped a good 10 seconds after teetering on the edge. Thomas missed the green on the 13th hole with his approach only to sink a long chip that was greeted by roars by the enormous galleries.
The real deal though, and one that’s destined to become emblematic of Thomas as a player with no fear, came on the 17th hole. The second of the three brutal finishing holes known as the ‘Green Mile’, the 216-yard par-3 is flanked by water on the left and is easily one of the most intimidating holes of any course on the PGA Tour. Thomas, whose regular miss is to the left, blasted a seven-iron curving towards the water that finished within 15 feet from the hole, which he sank to take an unassailable three-shot lead going into the final hole. Matsuyama, meanwhile, was going the other way and imploded to a one-over 72, finishing way down the leaderboard. Sweet swinging Louis Oosthuizen holed a 50-footer on the final hole to finish in tied second place; the South African achieved the dubious distinction of finishing runner-up in all the four Majors.
For years, Thomas had to live with the tag of being Jordan Spieth’s best buddy and would bristle at the insinuation that his game wasn’t in the same league as his friend. “Pretty awesome dude,” said Spieth who was amongst the first to congratulate Thomas on the 18th green. So who is Justin Thomas again? He’s a 24-year-old pro golfer from Alabama; he’s a Major winner, and multiple winner on the PGA Tour; he’s one of four players to have won the PGA Championship before they turned 24 (Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy are the other three). In August 2017, he’s the sixth-ranked golfer in the world. Chew on that. A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game