As Jordan Spieth has been building his legacy with one of the greatest starts to a career in professional golf history, Justin Thomas has become perhaps best known as Spieth’s sidekick, his longtime friend and closest buddy on tour.
With a win Sunday in the 99th PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club, Thomas made a major addition to a resume that is quickly ascending to rival Spieth’s.
Thomas shot a 3-under-par 68 in the final round to claim a two-shot win at 8-under 276.
“I knew I had the game to get it done, it was just a matter of whether I would or not,” Thomas said.
Patrick Reed, Francesco Molinari and Louis Oosthuizen all tied for second at 6-under 278.
As Thomas has done before for Spieth following a major championship, Spieth was among those who greeted Thomas beside the 18th green after he putted out for the win. Both players are 24.
“It was great to win, but I feel like I’m part of a little group now,” Thomas said.
He’s also part of a group of young talented players on tour that includes Spieth that are pushing each other toward greatness. Rickie Fowler and Bud Cauley were among the other players waiting to greet Thomas off the 18th.
“We want to beat the other person. But if we can't win, we at least want to enjoy it with our friends,” Thomas said. “I think that we'll all be able to enjoy this together, and I know it's going to make them more hungry, just like it did me for Jordan winning at the British.”
Spieth has 11 PGA Tour wins and three major championships with his win three weeks ago in the British Open.
Thomas now has five PGA Tour wins and one major, and he has one-upped Spieth this season.
Spieth has three wins and a major this season, while Thomas has four wins and a major. He’s seemingly now the leading candidate for PGA Tour Player of the Year with the four-event FedExCup playoffs remaining.
Winning the PGA Championship holds special meaning for Thomas, as his grandfather and his father, Mike, have been PGA of America professionals. Thomas is one of just eight sons of PGA pros to win the Wanamaker Trophy. His parents were at Quail Hollow and he spoke to his grandfather on the phone following the win.
“You want to win any major. For me, the PGA definitely had a special place in my heart, and maybe a special drive, I guess you could say. For this to be my first one and have my dad here, and I know grandpa was watching at home. I was able to talk to him and that was pretty cool. It's just a great win for the family, and it's a moment we'll never forget, all of us.
“. . . I’m glad we have a Wanamaker trophy to share between the three of us.”
I love my grandpa so much. I've just spent so many times with him on the golf course. He's watched me play and win so many junior golf tournaments. It would have been great if he could have been here. I mean, I understand he couldn't. But I'm just glad that he could watch it and we can share this together.
Thomas recalls many early evenings in Louisville throughout his childhood when he and his father would have chipping or putting contests, or play nine holes for $1 once his father was done with his daily duties as a PGA of America club pro.
While the contests were competitive, the overriding message was for Thomas to enjoy whatever it was he chose to do. He chose golf, “and now we're just enjoying the ride together,” Thomas said.
The PGA Championship had a lot to do with Thomas’ career choice. It was a 7-year-old spectator at the 2000 PGA Championship won by Tiger Woods at Valhalla Golf Club in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., he was inspired to play professional golf.
“Being at the PGA that week, and just hearing the roars, and just hearing everything, and what Tiger was producing out there,” Thomas said. “I mean, him and that week was the reason that I was like, ‘Okay, this is really what I want to do.’ ”
Thomas, who will improve from his ranking of 14th in the Official World Golf Ranking entering the week, was in a similar position to Sunday just two months ago.
He was in the final group in the final round of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills following a 63 in the third round that at the time tied for the lowest round in major championship history. But he shot a 75 in the final round to fall into a tie for ninth.
He believes he was a bit anxious that day and wanted to remain more patient Sunday. “I knew wherever my game was on the first tee, I knew I needed to be patient,” Thomas said.
He was so confident that he would win he told his girlfriend, Jillian Wisniewski, to change her scheduled 7 p.m. flight out of Charlotte.
“She's the first person to tell you that I don't want to talk about golf when I get in that situation. So I don't know, I just was very confident,” said Thomas, who won a national NCAA team title as a sophomore at Alabama.
Thomas began the final round two strokes behind 54-hole leader Kevin Kisner and alone in fourth.
Thomas got off to a sluggish start with two bogeys and a birdie through his first three holes. But he birdied the par-5 seventh, rolled in a 36-foot bomb for birdie on the ninth and hit perhaps the most memorable shot of the tournament on the par-5 10th hole to reach 7 under and pull into a tie for the lead.
The hole began with a tee shot to the right that bounced into the fairway off a tree, leading to an 8-foot birdie putt on the 10th green hung on the left lip for nearly 10 seconds before dropping into the hole. Thomas had turned and walked away from the hole, then turned to walk back toward it when the ball fell in and he tipped his cap to the crowd.
“I didn't even see it go in,” Thomas said. “I was more so looking at [caddie] Jimmy [Johnson] asking, ‘How does it not go in?’ . . . I threw a little fit to try to see what would happen, and I was upset that I had a really easy up-and-down and maybe let the opportunity go. Then gravity took over and the roar was pretty loud, so that was pretty cool.”
His next birdie came via chip-in from 40 feet on the par-3 13th hole, after which he gave an exaggerated fist pump and turned to the crowd. “Thirteen was awesome, too,” he said.
That chip-in on 13 was probably the most berserk I’ve ever gone on the golf course.
The birdies helped Thomas break free from a four-way tie for the lead early on the back nine as he, Hideki Matsuyama, Kisner and Chris Stroud were all at 7 under. Molinari and Reed also got to 7 under – 5 under for their rounds – before each made a bogey on one of the final three holes.
Thomas failed to make birdie on two of the easier holes at Quail Hollow – the short and potentially drivable 300-yard par-4 14th hole and 558-yard par-5 15th – but he made just one of five birdies Sunday on the 221-yard par-3 17th hole, hitting one extra club with a 7-iron because of adrenalin and curling a 14-foot putt into the left side of the cup.
“That was one of the best golf shots I've probably ever hit in my life,” Thomas said. “That birdie on 17 was huge to allow me to limp in.”
Thomas took a three-shot lead to the 18th hole and won by two with a bogey.
Thomas said he felt pretty calm and comfortable and stuck to his game plan most of the day, but at one point he checked his hand and it was shaking a bit – “But I mean, that's why you play. You know, you play for those nerves,” he said – and had a perplexing moment walking to the 17th green.
“I had some snacks in my bag and I was eating it and I literally almost choked,” Thomas said. “Like I started coughing and I was like, am I really going to choke? Is this a sign to come? It's funny the things that you think about when you get in those situations.”
He had already proved he wasn’t going to choke on this day. “To win a major at 24, it’s pretty cool saying it. Obviously it was an unbelievable week and experience,” Thomas said.
Fowler and Matsuyama, who shot a 1-over 72 while playing with Thomas, tied for fifth at 5-under 279. Kisner, of Aiken, bogeyed the 16th and doubled the 18th in the final group to shoot 74 and tie for seventh with Graham DeLaet at 280. Stroud tied for ninth after shooting a final-round 76 in the final group with Kisner.