May 28, 2022
One is good, but Two is Special
Justin Thomas is now a two time major championship winner by capturing the PGA Championship for the second time at Southern Hills Country Club last Sunday. He was the most experienced player coming down the stretch and that proved to be the determining factor for who would hold the Wannamaker Trophy. It didn't look like he had a chance, but fate must have been on his side, because all the others made mistakes that he didn't.
Standing on the 9th tee of the final round, Justin was one over par for the round and one under for the tournament. The tournament leader, Mito Pereira, was playing three holes behind and was at 9 under par, which was an 8 shot advantage over the eventual winner. Realistically, there was little chance of winning with only 10 holes to play unless the leader and those close to him faltered. That's exactly what happened as Mito slipped to six under par with four holes to play. Cameron Young, playing one group ahead of Mito, also got to six under with four to play, but quickly gave it back on the next hole. From that point it was Mito's tournament to win. Standing on the 18th tee, Mito had held or was tied for the lead over the past 22 holes. Justin Thomas was, at that point, just another player that was now close to his lead.
On the ninth hole, Justin made birdie, then birdies on 11 and 12 and suddenly he felt he could put pressure on the leaders. Justin's last six holes were marked with some outstanding shots, but also failed opportunities. He didn't birdie the relatively easy par five 13th. That followed by a poor iron shot, but a great sand save from long distance on the next. Then a great opportunity was missed when he couldn't make a makeable eight footer for birdie on 15. The 16th was clutch, because Justin hit into the greenside bunker some 80 feet from the hole. He hit maybe the best shot of the back nine, when he hit it to less than a foot from the hole. The game now was on for Justin Thomas and he delivered with major championship golf shots. On the short par four 17th, he again got up and down from the bunker to get to 5 under par. Then a brilliantly executed drive and a better 7 iron to the most difficult hole on the course to within 11 feet. The storybook ending would've been that he made that putt, but he didn't. Bold effort, but it wasn't to be. That putt would've tied Pereira for the lead, so now his fate was in someone else's hands.
Whether it was pressure or the lack of experience in a major championship environment, the leaders didn't come through in the end. Cameron Young took four strokes from the same bunker that Thomas took two shots on 16. Cameron finished one back of the play-off. Will Zalatoris three putted the same hole from just over 20 feet to give up a valuable shot. But regrettably the worst collapse happened to Mito Pereiro. This was his tournament. He battled and hung onto the lead for a long time and anytime it looked like he would crack, he made a spectacular comeback. He made a gutsy par putt on 16, which at that point looked like a clincher. He could've put it away on 17, but a poor pitch lead to an improbable birdie putt. Almost made it, but now there was one hole to play with a one stroke lead. His decision to hit driver off the tee on 18 is being questioned. He hit driver the previous three days and found the fairway each time. He also played the hole in one under par. I don't fault his choice. He played with the game that got him to this position. He claimed he didn't even think about the water that guarded the right side of the fairway. His swing, however, showed nerves and when he needed a good swing in a major championship, he didn't have it. The ball found the water and from that point on, he was out of position and just making a five would've been an accomplishment. I would've liked to see him in the play-off, but one bad swing or one swing that lacked of commitment cost him a chance of a lifetime.
Experience matters. Mito Pereiro showed that he has the game to be a winner on the PGA Tour. Whether he will be in position again for a major again, we will see. I hope he learns a lot from this experience, if he does we will see him again. Will Zalatoris and Cameron Young, those are two names that we will definitely see in the winner's circle soon. Zalatoris played solid in the play-off against Justin and he handled and comported himself like someone that is comfortable on the big stage. In the end, Justin Thomas had everything fall perfectly into place and he had the experience to know what to do with it when given the opportunity. He has been playing well, but seems to have been stuck in second gear for a few years; maybe this will kick him forward to another level of great players?