TULSA, Okla. — Major championships are precious. There are around 550 individual bids to win the biggest events of the year but just four trophies handed out over as many months. Less than 1% of those who tee it up at the four majors every year walk away completely satisfied.
For a while at the 2022 PGA Championship, it seemed as if someone would walk away not only satisfied but also shocked. Going into Sunday’s final round at Southern Hills Country Club, which was hosting a major for the eighth time, the top four on the leaderboard — Mito Pereira, Matt Fitzpatrick, Will Zalatoris and Cameron Young — combined for zero PGA Tour wins and just five major top 10s in their careers.
A win Sunday would have been life-altering for any of the four. For three-quarters of that group, their Korn Ferry Tour days are still so fresh that internalizing this monumental moment must have felt like trying to capture water with their hands.
Justin Thomas knew this.
After shooting 67-67-74 with a dizzying display of ball-striking that was less mechanical movement than it was artistic arrangement, he was seven strokes back going into Sunday’s final round. Still, he was more hopeful than he thought he would be.
“I just remember how tough it was, and I remember how tough it is now to win,” said Thomas. “So, I knew I was going to be nervous, and I knew they’d be feeling the exact same thing.”
J.T. played late Thursday and early Friday in a wave that was two strokes harder than the other side. His golf was so good over the first two days that he beat everybody but one player in that draw by five strokes.
The entire thing was a show. Thomas moved his ball around with so much aplomb early in the week it looked as if Jim “Bones” Mackay was steering it with a remote control. Most modern players choose to paint by numbers. When Thomas reaches for the vast array of brushes at his disposal, you might as well clear space in the museum.
Still, he trailed going to the weekend because of that difficult draw. It would get worse before it got better. His 74 on Saturday left him at 2 under and T7, seven back of Pereira, the 54-hole leader. Thomas was all but buried on the board. It seemed as if one of the surprisingly few true opportunities he’s had to win a major was gone before it fully materialized.
Thomas was among the last men on the range on Saturday evening, but he was more upbeat than expected after that 74 seemed to rip one of those valuable few runs at another major trophy from some of the best hands in professional golf.
He hit balls for a while and received encouraging words from Bones, who told J.T. that he needed to stop being so down on himself. Thomas seemed to take it to heart. He ended his Saturday by signing flag after flag for the long-suffering kids who waited all day hoping for his signature.
“I left here in an awesome frame of mind,” Thomas said. “I think [I was] the last player here. … It was so peaceful. It was almost kind of eerie how beautiful it was outside, and there’s not very many times after shooting 4 over on Saturday of a major I left in as good a frame of mind as I have [here].”
Thomas started inconspicuously Sunday and shot an even-par 35 on the front nine. After making par at No. 10 to stay at 2 under for the week, Data Golf pinned his probability of winning at 0.4%. In other words, it would be a miracle.
Then something happened that reminded everyone of his last major win, the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. J.T. ran in a putt from 65 feet on No. 11, half-bowed to the crowd and tipped his hat. It was a redux from a birdie in his final round the last time he won the Wanamaker Trophy.
Thomas birdied No. 12 as well and then missed a birdie putt at No. 15 that would have brought the house down. It felt at the time like it would be a shot on which he would look back with regret.
An up-and-down birdie at the drivable par-4 17th — that Bones said was tougher than it looked — got J.T. to 5 under with mighty No. 18 awaiting. Thomas ripped that head-high cutter off the tee and hit a championship-caliber iron to a right-hand pin.
“It’s just awesome,” said Thomas. “I don’t know, really, how else to describe it other than that. I mean, that iron shot on 18 in regulation, like, 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.
“It’s hard to explain, but it’s a full-body-chills-type of feeling.”
Thomas somehow missed a putt that once again felt costly. He played Nos. 17 and 18 as well as possible, but he didn’t know if his third 67 in four rounds would be enough. J.T. made his way to the scoring tent — where he leaned splay-legged on a table as the clubhouse leader at 5 under — to watch the theatrics unfurled behind him on the course.
Just before moving to a more private area to view the ending of the tournament, Thomas looked up and said to nobody in particular, “Hope for the best, man.”
He got it.
Zalatoris finished 1 over on the back nine with a clutch birdie at the last to squeak in the house alongside Thomas at 5 under.
After Pereira, who played the first seven holes of the back nine in 1 over, left a birdie putt on No. 17 one rotation short of the cup short, the 54-hole leader went to the 18th needing a par to win. His drive at the last hole of the tournament looked like a check-swing and prompted somebody I was walking alongside to say, “It looked like he got electrocuted at impact.”
Pereira made aon the 18th and missed out on the playoff altogether.
Everything happens quickly at the end of majors.
Thomas was whisked away to the opposite end of the driving range from where players had hit all week. There wasn’t a divot to be found.
CBS announcer Colt Knost fed him play-by-play as play concluded in regulation. From there, he was put on a cart and driven over to the 13th tee box where the three-hole aggregate playoff began.
An impromptu parade broke out in the interim. Chants of “J.T! J.T.!” mixed with the particular smell you only get at majors — an amalgamation of mud and sweat and hamburger smoke. It settled in over the playoff.
Thomas and Zalatoris traded birdies at the par-5 13th. J.T.’s father, Mike, appeared ready to raise the roof to the crowd that had encircled that green.
Just like that, a mediocre major had suddenly become an instant classic.
As Thomas walked to the 17th, a spectator hollered, “Mama, that’s a bad man.” That was before J.T. hit shot of the tournament on its second-to-last hole: a high-hanging missile that turned over itself, hit the front of the green and settled 34 feet from the cup. He two-putted for birdie while Zalatoris made par.
Bones got in J.T.’s ear on the 18th tee like that famous Draymond Green-Kevin Durant GIF, and Thomas delivered another one-two punch for par on the hardest hole of the week.
The third-largest 54-hole comeback in major championship history — and largest this century — was complete. Zalatoris took off his cap and clapped his hands from a distance as the normally placid Thomas broke down.
“I just think it’s just so hard to win,” Thomas said when asked about the emotion afterward. “Like, it is. I legitimately think it’s harder to win now than it was when I first came out on Tour. … I think it’s easy to start letting some doubt creep in and just kind of [think], like, ‘All right, what’s going to happen? When is it going to happen? Is it going to happen?’
“I just was walking up 18 in the playoff, and I knew it wasn’t over, but I looked up and I wanted to take it in because you don’t know when and if it’s going to happen again. It’s such an unbelievable, cool feeling that you just want to enjoy it.”
Majors are precious. There are so few of them and so many great players vying to take them home. As Thomas entered his closing kick on Sunday, first round leader Rory McIlroy told CBS Sports that “dejection” was the primary emotion he experienced after finishing in eighth place on the final leaderboard and letting his own attempt to win slip away.
Thomas learned just how few opportunities there are in the years between his 2017 PGA Championship and this one, hence his emotion on the 18th. After you win your first major at the tender age of 24, it always feels as if they’ll start to flow. And then they don’t.
The last five years have brought a preposterous run of champions. Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Collin Morikwa, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau have all won at least one since Thomas won his last — a couple of them more than one.
In a career, even star golfers may only get a handful of true runs on Sunday afternoons at major championships. If they’re lucky.
As Thomas made his way toward the clubhouse after finishing with a 275 in regulation, he walked past PGA of America employees in charge of handling the oversized Wanamaker Trophy.
The handler in his polo and vest carried this 27-pound, 28-inch high cup as Thomas ascended next to him. The trophy was sheathed in a blue velvet protective cover. It wasn’t quite time.
For another 20 minutes, it seemed like that moment would be a metaphor for Thomas’ day and this stretch of his career.
He’s played so well for several years with no big game to show for it. He had played magnificently for three consecutive days and so poorly for one. The men carrying the trophy sauntered down hill toward those still ahead of Thomas on the leaderboard who had yet to finish.
Nobody took the cover off the trophy, and J.T. got his playoff.
By the time he walked up No. 18 for the second time Sunday, the Wanamaker was exposed for everyone to see. It reflected the receding sun in an Oklahoma sky that last saw a major championship won by Tiger Woods in 2007.
Thomas was still a teenager then, and the idea that he and Tiger would someday be close friends was surely an unfathomable dream to him at the time. Now, they’re the last two golfers to win majors at Southern Hills.
As Thomas made his way through the mob of folks surrounding No. 18, the uncovered trophy sat shining and waiting to be held.
J.T. had himself another precious major.