CHARLOTTE (Reuters) — Justin Thomas capped off a major season that belonged to an aggressive new breed of fearless young Americans when he stormed to a two-stroke victory at the PGA Championship on Sunday.
At 24, he followed in the footsteps of then-23-year-old Jordan Spieth’s British Open triumph and the U.S. Open victory by 27-year-old Brooks Koepka, suggesting a bright future for American golf.
Thomas, one of the longest drivers on tour, started the final major of the year ranked 14th in the world, not one of the favorites after recent poor form, but came through by executing under pressure as many of his rivals withered.
“I just had an unbelievable calmness throughout the week, throughout the day,” Thomas said after lifting the Wanamaker Trophy. “I really truly felt I was going to win. I was just very confident. I didn’t get flustered.
“I was a lot more calm than I thought I would be. I thought I would be very shaky. At one point I looked at my hand it was a little shaky but that’s why you play.”
The serenity served Thomas well after a slow start, as he bided his time before vaulting to the front with four birdies in a sizzling seven-hole stretch mid-round.
He then held firm over the dangerous final water-lined three holes, known as the ‘Green Mile’, hoisting a seven-iron to 15-foot at the par-three 17th before sinking the putt to all but secure victory, a bogey at the last academic as he carded 68 to finish at eight-under 276.
“That was probably one of the best shots I’ve ever had to a pin that was really brutal,” Thomas said of his tee shot at 17.
“I needed to make par. I’ll never forget that vision in my head (and) to make a birdie there was beyond a bonus.”
Thomas was one of five players tied for the lead early on the back nine, before he broke clear with an unlikely 40-foot chip-in birdie at the par-three 13th.
He celebrated wildly, pumping his fists, perhaps sensing it was a pivotal moment.
“That chip-in on 13 was probably the most berserk I’ve ever been on the golf course,” he said.
As Thomas celebrated, others wondered what might have been, as fellow American Patrick Reed (67) bogeyed the last to finish equal second with Italian Francesco Molinari (67) and South African Louis Oosthuizen (70).
Hideki Matsuyama, seeking to become the first man from Japan to win a major, held the lead briefly mid-round before fading with three consecutive bogeys from the 11th.
He carded 72 and finished three shots behind with American Rickie Fowler (67).
Overnight leader Kevin Kisner (74) finished four shots back.
Thomas, after sinking a 35-foot birdie at the ninth, picked up another shot to tie for the lead at the par-five 10th, where his eight-foot putt stopped on the lip of the cup.
Almost apoplectic with frustration, he wisely took his time walking to the ball, which after remaining stationary for 12 seconds toppled in.
“I acted like a child and threw a little tantrum and then it went in so I didn’t look so bad,” Thomas said.
“I did a little fit and gravity took over.”
Two hours later he was celebrating victory.
“Major champion will never be taken away from my name,” he said.
Reporting by Andrew Both for Reuters News; Editing by Frank Pingue.