Column: Thomas Earns PGA–And Rightful Place Among Golf’s Young Stars

The biggest storyline entering the 99th PGA Championship was Jordan Spieth, and whether he could become the youngest player in history to complete the career grand slam.

When the dust settled at dusk on Sunday Spieth was, in fact, celebrating a championship on the 18th green–in street clothes, as he hugged close friend and first-time major winner Justin Thomas.

Thomas earned the PGA title by emerging from a crowded pack of contenders over Quail Hollow’s back nine on Sunday, and in doing so earned his rightful place among the group of young stars dominating today’s golf landscape.

A Well-Earned Title

Thomas started Sunday’s final round two shots back of 54-hole leader Kevin Kisner, and while he certainly benefited from a couple of good breaks on his way to winning the Wanamaker Trophy, he also showed his skill in the clutch en route to victory.

After struggling through the brutal opening hole, Thomas made a clutch 15-footer to limit the damage and make bogey.  Thomas then birdied the second and seventh holes, before holing a 36-footer for birdie at the ninth to get within a shot of Hideki Matsuyama’s lead.

Riding the momentum at the turn, Thomas’s 10th hole turned a good round into a round of destiny.  His tee shot was way left on the 600-yard par-5, but bounced off a tree straight to the center of the fairway.  After his second missed the green long and his third rolled to within eight feet, his birdie putt rolled to the left lip of the hole and stopped, before falling in the hole after 12 suspenseful seconds, keeping him within one.


A par at the 11th pulled Thomas into a five-way tie for the lead (when Matsuyama made bogey), then a par at the 12th gave him the lead as his fellow co-leaders each fell off the 7-under mark, Thomas chipped in from left of the green on the par-3 13th, adding to his final round highlight reel and his lead, which was two.


As other players continued to struggle down the stretch, Thomas made pars on the 14th, 15th and 16th, then birdied the difficult par-3 17th after an aggressive tee shot to 14 feet on a green guarded on three sides by water, allowing him to conservatively play the dangerous 18th with a three-shot lead on his way to clinching the victory with a tap-in bogey.

A Young Star

By earning the PGA title with his steady play throughout the final round, Thomas has also earned his rightful place among golf’s young stars, especially alongside his friend Spieth.

Thomas and Spieth, both 24, grew up playing together as two of the best junior golfers in the world.  Both represented the U.S. in the Junior Ryder Cup (Spieth 2008, ’10; Thomas 2010) and Walker Cup (Spieth 2011, Thomas 2013), contributing to American victories in each event.  Both would eventually lead a college team to a national championship (Spieth at Texas in 2012; Thomas at Alabama in 2013).

Both Spieth and Thomas appeared in a PGA Tour event at age 16.  Spieth opened eyes with a 16th-place finish at the 2010 Valero Texas Open, but a few months earlier Thomas had shot an opening 65 in the Wyndham Championship and become the third-youngest player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event, proving his game’s strength to all in attendance that week in Greensboro–myself included.

Spieth has had more success since the two turned pro, but that’s at least partially because Spieth turned pro before Thomas, and had more PGA Tour opportunities through sponsor exemptions, while Thomas had to qualify for the Tour through the second-tier Web.com Tour.

But now, Thomas is catching up in the most-viewed category of success–major championships–by ironically winning the one major Spieth lacks.

The major title puts Thomas a leg up on others in the tight-knit group of young stars.  Other young guns still seeking their first major include Daniel Berger and Smylie Kaufman from the U.S. and international players including Jon Rahm, Emiliano Grillo and Matsuyama, who went on to tie for fifth Sunday and has finished second to Thomas in two other events this season.  Rickie Fowler, who was also waiting to congratulate Thomas at the 18th green, is older (28) than some of the other players, but is close with Thomas, Spieth and others of the young wave.

Thomas will also be the favorite for PGA Tour Player of the Year honors as the Tour enters the FedEx Cup Playoffs next week.  Thomas leads the Tour with four wins, all by two or more strokes, including one in a major and one in January’s SBS Tournament of Champions.  On January 12, Thomas became the youngest of eight players in PGA Tour history to break 60, shooting 59 on his way to a win at the Sony Open in Hawaii.  Thomas also tied a U.S. Open record with a 63 in the third round before finishing ninth.

The last time two players under 25 won back-to-back majors was in 1925, when Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen won the Open Championship and the PGA Championship.

The names Jones and Sarazen were commonly heard in major championship conversations over the next decade.

We know the name Spieth will similarly be a part of the conversation for the extended foreseeable future.

But now, after earning his first major, Justin Thomas has earned his place in that conversation too.

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Fast Five: Storylines Entering the PGA Championship

The final major of the 2017 golf season starts Thursday, as the 99th PGA Championship begins Thursday at Quail Hollow in Charlotte.

The tournament field, which is annually the deepest in golf, features 97 of the top 100 players in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Here are the biggest storylines entering this week’s event.

Quail Hollow

The Charlotte country club, which hosts the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship each May with the exception of this year, is hosting a major championship for the first time, although it likely won’t be the last.  The PGA of America has shown its affection for the venue, as it was in the running for the 2020 and 2024 Ryder Cups.  It will also host the 2021 President’s Cup.

In a typical major championship (besides the Masters), the field is playing a venue that hosts that event once every few years that they may not have played since the last time a major was there (and younger players may not have played at all).  But at Quail Hollow, the players are all very familiar with the course from playing it in the Wells Fargo Championship each year.

A big factor in the 7,600-yard layout landing big events is the finishing stretch.  The 14th and 15th holes play relatively easy–although both have water in play–as a short par-four and a reachable par-five, but they are the calm before the storm.

The following three-hole finishing stretch, known as “The Green Mile,” often play as the three toughest holes on the course:  The 16th is a long par-four with water to the left and behind the green; the 17th is a long par-three with water on three sides of the green, and a penal collection area to the right; the 18th is a long par-four with a punishing creek down the entire left side, and imposing bunkers on the right on both the drive and approach.

If a player needs to play the final three holes in even-par to win on Sunday, they will have earned it if they end up hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy.  In the event of a tie, the PGA’s unique three-hole aggregate playoff would be played over these three difficult holes.

Quail Hollow is becoming the third course in North Carolina to become a major, and the first in Charlotte.  Pinehurst No. 2, a resort course 80 miles east of Charlotte, hosted the 1936 PGA and the U.S. Open in 1999, 2005 and 2014; Tanglewood, a public course in suburban Winston-Salem, hosted the 1974 PGA.

There are always questions regarding the weather for a major championship in the summer in the South, and while the temperature will be in the mid-80s for the week–a best case scenario for August in Charlotte–but scattered thunderstorms are expected throughout the week, which may challenge tournament organizers in trying to finish the event by dusk on Sunday.

Rory McIlroy

In seven Wells Fargo starts at Quail Hollow, McIlroy has two wins and has only finished outside the top 10 once.  His four-shot win in 2010 was his first on the PGA Tour, while his 2015 win set the tournament record for scoring (21-under 267) and margin of victory (seven shots).

McIlroy won the PGA Championship in 2012 and 2014, although after winning four majors in a three-year span from 2011-14 he hasn’t won one since his triumph at Valhalla.  But given McIlroy’s success at Quail Hollow, perhaps that could change this week.

McIlroy tied for fifth at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, shooting four rounds of 69 or better (the first time he’s done so the 2014 PGA), and tied for fourth in the last major at The Open Championship, matching his best major finish since his 2014 PGA win.

The PGA Championship comes just weeks after McIlroy’s highly-publicized split with longtime caddie J.P. Fitzgerald.  Harry Diamond, a friend who was the best man in McIlroy’s wedding, is temporarily carrying the bag for McIlroy, who said the situation has allowed him a fresh perspective on his shot selection and tournament preparation.

Jordan Spieth

After winning The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale three weeks ago, Jordan Spieth is now a PGA Championship win away from becoming the sixth player to win all four majors in a career, the “career grand slam.”

This week marks Spieth’s one and only chance to become the youngest to complete the career slam; if he doesn’t win the PGA until next year, he would be older than Tiger Woods was at the time he completed the career grand slam in 2000.  This major is the first of three straight with a player having a chance at completing the career slam:  Rory McIlroy can finish it at The Masters, and Phil Mickelson can at the U.S. Open.

Spieth tied for 13th at the Bridgestone in his first start since his Open triumph, but including The Open has won two of his last three starts.

Spieth only has one start at Quail Hollow–a tie for 32nd in the 2013 Wells Fargo Championship before he turned 20–but he has been successful on relatively unfamiliar major venues before:  he finished second in his first Masters (and won the following year), won the first U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, missed a playoff by one at St. Andrews in his first start there, finished second behind Jason Day’s domination at Whistling Straits, and won at Royal Birkdale in July.  With Spieth’s superb all-around game, he can win on any track at any time.

He’s also proven he can win back-to-back majors, doing so in the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open, joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy as players to do so in the 21st century.

Hideki Matsuyama

The world’s third-ranked player is coming off an impressive win Sunday in Akron, but he’s becoming a potential story in each major due to his consistency on the PGA Tour.

Matsuyama’s 2016-17 season started with wins at the WGC-HSBC Champions and the Hero World Challenge last fall, and the Phoenix Open in Feburary.  The Japanese star slumped from mid-February until the U.S. Open, with a tie for 11th at Augusta as his only top 20 in the stretch, but after a tie for second in the U.S. Open, a tie for 14th in The Open Championship, and last week’s win Matsuyama now leads the FedEx Cup Standings just two weeks before the FedEx Cup Playoffs begin.

Matsuyama is already the most accomplished Japanese player of all-time, and now he’s trying to do something only one other Asian player–South Korean Y.E. Yang–has done:  win a major championship (Yang won the 2009 PGA).

As accomplished as young stars like Rickie Fowler and veterans like Lee Westwood are, Matsuyama is now clearly the best player without a major title–but that distinction could change by Sunday night.

PGA Moving to May

Perhaps the biggest story in the days ahead of the 99th PGA Championship is about the tournament’s future, as the PGA of America announced this week the PGA Championship will move to May, starting in 2019.

The PGA has been nicknamed “Glory’s Last Shot”–organizers even used the phrase as an event slogan at one time–as the event has been the last chance to win a major in a calendar year.  That will change with the move to May, giving the PGA the second-spot in the major championship lineup between the Masters and the U.S. Open.

The Players Championship, which is not a major but is considered the biggest non-major tournament in the world–will move from its current May date back to March, when it was played from its inception until 2007.  The BMW PGA Championship, which is the flagship event of the European Tour and is also currently played in mid-May, is expected to move to September.

The move will take the PGA off of a date that was strongly affected by golf’s return to the Olympic Games in 2016; now, the PGA won’t have to move up two weeks as it did a year ago to accommodate the Olympic golf tournament.

Another factor is the PGA Tour’s rumored plans for a larger schedule overhaul, potentially moving the FedEx Cup Playoffs up to August in 2019 to avoid weekend competition with football that currently exists in September.

If that move happens, the game of golf will have a marquee event each month from March to August:  The Players, the Masters, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, The Open Championship and the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

Other Notes: 

Jimmy Walker holds an unusual combination of titles this week–defending champion and sleeper.  His struggles since his first major win 52 weeks ago can, at least partially, be attributed to Lyme Disease, but Walker showed flashes of brilliance last week at the Bridgestone with a Friday 65 on his way to a tie for 28th.

Dustin Johnson has been the top-ranked player in the world since the spring, although he’s struggled–at least by number-one standards–since the back injury that took him out of the Masters.  But Johnson has finished eighth and 17th the last two weeks, including a 68-66 finish at the Bridgestone, and his length will be advantageous at Quail Hollow.

Masters champion Sergio Garcia and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka are playing the first two rounds with Spieth in the traditional pairing of the season’s first three major winners.  Garcia and Koepka are trying to join Spieth (2015), Mark O’Meara (1998), Jack Burke Jr. (1956) and Gene Sarazen (1922) as players to win their first two majors in the same season.

Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els are both starting their 100th major championship.  The pair have combined for nine majors (Mickelson five, Els four), including Mickelson’s 2005 PGA win at Baltusrol, and Mickelson has six top fives in the last 10 Wells Fargo Championships at Quail Hollow, including a second to McIlroy in 2010.

Rickie Fowler’s first PGA Tour win came at Quail Hollow in 2012, in a thrilling playoff triumph over Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points.  Could his first major championship win come at the same venue?  He finished ninth last week at the Bridgestone with a 67-66 weekend.

Webb Simpson has just two top 10’s since February, but the 2012 U.S. Open champion is playing on his home course at Quail Hollow.  With some home cooking and his local knowledge, Simpson is a sleeper this week.

Charley Hoffman finished second and third in the last two PGA Tour events and is trending well in majors, finishing in the top 22 of all three majors so far this year, including an eighth at the U.S. Open.

Two-time major winner Zach Johnson finished second at the Bridgestone, and has three top 10s in the Wells Fargo Championship.  A win would leave him just a U.S. Open title away from the career grand slam.

Other former Wells Fargo Championship winners in the field include Vijay Singh (2005), Jim Furyk (2006), Sean O’Hair (2009), Lucas Glover (2011), J.B. Holmes (2014) and James Hahn (2016).  Brian Harman won the Wells Fargo in May, but the event was held at Eagle Point in Wilmington while Quail Hollow prepared for the PGA Championship.

Prediction:
I know it sounds like a movie script, but I can totally see the tournament unfolding this way:  An epic back-nine duel between McIlroy, Spieth, Fowler or Matsuyama, and an unexpected contender (Quail Hollow has produced some surprise winners, after all), culminating in a Spieth-McIlroy playoff, which McIlroy wins, denying Spieth the career grand slam (at least for now). 

 

 

99th PGA Championship
Notable First Round Tee Times (ET):

7:45 a.m.:  Hideki Matsuyama, Ernie Els, Ian Poulter
8:25 a.m.:  Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth
8:35 a.m.:  Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson
8:55 a.m.:  Zach Johnson, Lee Westwood, Charley Hoffman
1:05 p.m.:  Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Webb Simpson
1:25 p.m.:  Jimmy Walker, Phil Mickelson, Jason Dufner
1:35 p.m.:  Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler
1:45 p.m.:  Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose, Chris Kirk

PGA Championship winners
(Year, Player, Nationality, Venue)
Match Play Era:
1916 Jim Barnes, England, Siwanoy
1919 Jim Barnes, England, Enginners
1920 Jock Hutchinson, Scotland, Flossmoor
1921 Walter Hagen, U.S., Inwood
1922 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Oakmont
1923 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Pelham
1924 Walter Hagen, U.S., French Lick Springs
1925 Walter Hagen, U.S., Olympia Fields
1926 Walter Hagen, U.S., Salisbury
1927 Walter Hagen, U.S., Cedar Crest
1928 Leo Diegel, U.S., Baltimore C.C.
1929 Leo Diegel, U.S., Hillcrest
1930 Tommy Armour, Scotland, Fresh Meadow
1931 Tom Creavy, U.S., Wannamoisett
1932 Olin Dutra, U.S., Keller
1933 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Blue Mound
1934 Paul Runyan, U.S., The Park C.C.
1935 Johnny Revolta, U.S., Twin Hills
1936 Denny Shute, U.S., Pinehurst No. 2
1937 Denny Shute, U.S., Pittsburgh Field Club
1938 Paul Runyan, U.S., Shawnee
1939 Henry Picard, U.S., Pomonok
1940 Byron Nelson, U.S., Hershey
1941 Vic Ghezzi, U.S., Cherry Hills
1942 Sam Snead, U.S., Seaview
1944 Bob Hamilton, U.S., Manito
1945 Byron Nelson, U.S., Moraine
1946 Ben Hogan, U.S., Portland G.C.
1947 Jim Ferrier, Australia, Plum Hollow
1948 Ben Hogan, U.S., Norwood Hills
1949 Sam Snead, U.S., Hermitage
1950 Chandler Harper, U.S., Scioto
1951 Sam Snead, U.S., Oakmont
1952 Jim Turnesa, U.S., Big Spring
1953 Walter Burkemo, U.S., Birmingham (Mich.) C.C.
1954 Chick Harbert, U.S., Keller
1955 Doug Ford, U.S., Meadowbrook
1956 Jack Burke Jr., U.S., Blue Hill
1957 Lionel Herbert, U.S., Miami Valley
Stroke Play Era:
1958 Dow Finsterwald, U.S., Llanerch
1959 Bob Rosburg, U.S., Minneapolis G.C.
1960 Jay Hebert, U.S., Firestone
1961 Jerry Barber, U.S., Olympia Fields
1962 Gary Player, South Africa, Aronimink
1963 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Dallas A.C.
1964 Bobby Nichols, U.S., Columbus C.C.
1965 Dave Marr, U.S., Laurel Valley
1966 Al Geiberger, U.S., Firestone
1967 Don January, U.S., Columbine
1968 Julius Boros, U.S., Pecan Valley
1969 Raymond Floyd, U.S., NCR C.C. 
1970 Dave Stockton, U.S., Southern Hills
1971 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., PGA National
1972 Gary Player, South Africa, Oakland Hills
1973 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Canterbury
1974 Lee Trevino, U.S., Tanglewood
1975 Jack Nicklaus, U.S. Firestone
1976 Dave Stockton, U.S., Congressional
1977 Lanny Wadkins, U.S., Pebble Beach
1978 John Mahaffey, U.S., Oakmont
1979 David Graham, Australia, Oakland Hills
1980 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Oak Hill
1981 Larry Nelson, U.S., Atlanta A.C.
1982 Raymond Floyd, U.S., Southern Hills
1983 Hal Sutton, U.S., Riviera
1984 Lee Trevino, U.S., Shoal Creek
1985 Hubert Green, U.S., Cherry Hills
1986 Bob Tway, U.S., Inverness
1987 Larry Nelson, U.S., PGA National
1988 Jeff Sluman, U.S., Oak Tree
1989 Payne Stewart, U.S., Kemper Lakes
1990 Wayne Grady, Austrailia, Shoal Creek
1991 John Daly, U.S., Crooked Stick
1992 Nick Price, Zimbabwe, Bellerive
1993 Paul Azinger, U.S., Inverness
1994 Nick Price, Zimbabwe, Bellerive
1995 Steve Elkington, Australia, Riviera
1996 Mark Brooks, U.S., Valhalla
1997 Davis Love III, U.S., Winged Foot
1998 Vijay Singh, Fiji, Sahalee
1999 Tiger Woods, U.S., Medinah
2000 Tiger Woods, U.S., Valhalla
2001 David Toms, U.S., Atlanta A.C.
2002 Rich Beem, U.S., Hazeltine
2003 Shaun Micheel, U.S., Oak Hill
2004 Vijay Singh, Fiji, Whistling Straits
2005 Phil Mickelson, U.S., Baltusrol
2006 Tiger Woods, U.S., Medinah
2007 Tiger Woods, U.S., Southern Hills
2008 Padraig Harrington, Ireland, Oakland Hills
2009 Y.E. Yang, South Korea, Hazeltine
2010 Martin Kaymer, Germany, Whistling Straits
2011 Keegan Bradley, U.S., Atlanta A.C.
2012 Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, Kiawah Island
2013 Jason Dufner, U.S., Oak Hill
2014 Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, Valhalla
2015 Jason Day, Australia, Whistling Straits
2016 Jimmy Walker, U.S., Baltusrol
Future Sites:
August 2017 Quail Hollow (Charlotte, N.C.)
August 2018 Bellerive (St. Louis, Mo.)
May 2019 Bethpage Black (Farmingdale, N.Y.)
May 2020 TPC Harding Park (San Francisco, Calif.)
May 2021 Kiawah Island (Kiawah Island, S.C.)
May 2022 Trump National (Bedminster, N.J.)
May 2023 Oak Hill (Rochester, N.Y.)