Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 13, 2017

Steady Down The Stretch, Thomas Wins The PGA

It was a bad week for the experts and handicappers, though perhaps all it proved is that trying to predict the winner of a golf tournament is a risky business at best. The PGA Championship at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club was Jordan Spieth’s first opportunity to win the career Grand Slam after his recent win at the Open Championship.  That gutty performance made him a popular pick by many pundits. The venue, usually the site of the Wells Fargo Championship on the regular PGA Tour schedule, is one that Rory McIlroy has played especially well, so naturally he joined Spieth on the short list of favorites.

But immediately after last year’s Wells Fargo, Quail Hollow underwent a significant makeover. The 1st and 2nd holes were essentially combined into one long opening dogleg par-4. To make up for the elimination of the old par-3 2nd, the 5th hole, a par-5, was reconfigured into two holes. The first of those was a par-3 that proved unpopular with many in the field, as its firm green refused to hold numerous tee shots that players thought had been well-struck. In addition all the greens were reseeded and several other holes were tweaked. Throw in the thicker rough typical of a major championship, and Quail Hollow was a decidedly different layout than what regular participants in the Wells Fargo know.

Whether because of the changes to the course or the lingering effects of his back injury, McIlroy spent most of the week in neutral, as did both Spieth and Dustin Johnson, another one of the pre-tournament favorites. Spieth never broke 70 on the par-71 layout, finishing at 2-over for the tournament. McIlroy’s only round in the 60s was a closing 68 that enabled him to post a total just one shot better than Spieth. Johnson too waited until Sunday to put up a solid score. Four over par going into the final round, he made the final circuit in 67 to get back to even par.

But while those three were never factors, two other golfers cited by many pundits as good bets to take home the Wanamaker Trophy instead left North Carolina with nothing more than thoughts of what might have been. Rickie Fowler’s first PGA Tour victory came at the 2012 Wells Fargo, and he opened the PGA with a 2-under par 69, better than all but seven players. But hidden in that solid number was a disastrous triple-bogey seven at the par-4 5th hole. Then in Saturday’s third round Fowler had moved to 5-under for the tournament as he came to Quail Hollow’s three closing holes, the so-called Green Mile. The three holes regularly play as the toughest closing stretch of any course on the Tour’s schedule, and relative to par they easily proved to be the hardest of any of this year’s major venues. Fowler’s Saturday turned to dust as he went bogey, double-bogey, bogey on the Green Mile. A closing 67 left him three shots adrift of the winning score and doubtless badly wishing he could replay just four particular holes.

Former world number one Jason Day was 6-under at the tournament’s midway point, but had given four of those shots back through the 13th hole of Saturday’s round. Then Day ran off three straight birdies to climb back into contention. After a bogey at the 17th Day’s drive on the 18th went wide right. Just minutes before Louis Oosthuizen had found himself in a similar position. Oostie chipped back out into the fairway and then hit a fine wedge close to the flag and made the par-saving putt. Day instead attempted an impossible hook up and over the trees. The gamble backfired when his shot wound up in a bush, leading to an unplayable lie penalty. After his drop Day’s fourth came to rest in deep rough, and his misadventure was far from over. His scorecard eventually displayed a snowman – an 8 – that ended his hopes for a second major title.

The favorites may have been flailing and failing, but the one certainty was that someone was going to win the PGA Championship. That player’s identity was very much unknown as Sunday’s final round moved to the back nine, when five players were briefly tied for the lead at 7-under par. One of those was Francisco Molinari, playing several holes ahead of the final two pairings. The Italian reach that number with four birdies in the space of five holes, but a bogey at the 16th dropped him back to 6-under. He became the clubhouse leader when he parred in to post that total.

The other four golfers who were part of that logjam were the members of those last two groups. The unlikely final pair of Kevin Kisner and Chris Stroud had eight holes to play at the time of the five-way tie. The two combined for just five pars over those holes. Kisner did make two birdies, but also three bogeys and a double to drop back to minus-4. Stroud was the last man into the tournament on the strength of a win at last week’s Barracuda Championship, a Tour stop for those golfers not in the limited-field WGC Bridgestone. His improbable spot at the top of the leader board ended with four bogeys and a double for a final nine 42, plunging Stroud all the way down to 1-under and a tie for ninth place.

The next to last pairing had two rising stars, 25-year old Hideki Matsuyama and 24-year old Justin Thomas. Fresh off his win at the Bridgestone, Matsuyama was trying to become the first Japanese to win a men’s major. But carrying the weight of an entire country’s hopes was already proving a heavy burden. Matsuyama had led alone at 8-under after a birdie at the 10th hole, but a bogey one hole later created the five-way tie. It was the first of three straight bogeys for Matsuyama. He then rallied with back-to-back birdies, but when he missed a short par putt on the 16th hole Japan’s hopes went a glimmering.

That left Thomas, who prior to this week had won four times on the PGA Tour, once each in 2015 and 2016 and twice early this year. By coincidence Matsuyama was the runner-up in two of those events, and in another oddity, none of them came on the U.S. mainland. The two wins this year were in Hawaii and the two earlier victories were at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, a tournament co-sanctioned by the Asian and PGA Tours.

Because of that Thomas may have been best known to casual fans as the golfing face of his sponsor Ralph Lauren or as one of the members of the Spring Break trips led by Spieth and Fowler. But he has plenty of game. His victory at the Sony Open in January included a 59 in the opening round. At the U.S. Open in June he charged his way into the final Sunday pairing by matching the then-record for lowest round in a major with a 63 in the third round. In both of those jaw-dropping performances he closed with an eagle-3.

There was nothing that dramatic at Quail Hollow, but Thomas had by far the steadiest back nine of any of the leaders. After a routine par at the 12th he holed a forty-foot chip from the fringe on the par-3 13th, and suddenly led by two. Three more pars followed before Thomas struck a perfect 7 iron over the water to fifteen feet at the 17th. When the birdie putt dropped he had a cushion that allowed him to play the 18th conservatively after an errant drive. It was a two-stroke victory and first major title for Thomas, who will now certainly be known for more than the Polo logo or YouTube videos from the Bahamas. At the major that’s organized by the PGA of America, the son and grandson of PGA pros may have been an unexpected winner, but he was definitely a deserving one.

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