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.