Just in time, Thomas saves himself and a PGA Championship

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Justin Thomas poses with the Wanamaker Trophy with his dad Mike, after winning the PGA Championship golf tournament in a playoff against Will Zalatoris at Southern Hills Country Club, Sunday, May 22, 2022, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

TULSA, Okla. – Justin Thomas barely remembers his first PGA Championship five years ago except for fans chanting his initials and the 7-iron he hit on the 17th that effectively won it for him.

Winning anywhere is hard even for great players — Thomas had gone 14 months since his last one — so as he climbed the hill toward the 18th green during the three-hole playoff, he made sure to soak up the grand stage below the pink clubhouse at Southern Hills.

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“I knew it wasn't over, but I looked up and wanted to take it in because you don't know when and if it's going to happen again,” Thomas said. “And it's such an unbelievable, cool feeling that you just want to enjoy it.”

Considering how he arrived at another PGA Championship, this major will be hard to forget.

Thomas was seven shots behind to start the final day. He hit a shank on the par-3 sixth hole that could have — probably should have — ended whatever chances he had. He holed a putt from 65 feet early on the back nine to stay in the game.

And then a major that had so little going for it — no star power at the top, no drama on the ground, no red shirt on Sunday when Tiger Woods withdrew — turned into pure theater of chaos and collapses.

The signature shot for Thomas was his 3-wood on the 301-yard 17th hole — the second of the three-hole playoff against Will Zalatoris — so perfect that he let the club twirl through his hands as it soared over a creek and onto the green some 35 feet from the hole for a birdie that gave him the lead for the first time all day.

The shank? Sometimes players use that term to describe a bad shot. Not this 5-iron.

“I just cold shanked it,” he said.

The hole played 228 yards. The tee shot traveled 108 yards at a 45-degree angle, lucky it didn't find a stream behind the second green. The next shot hit a tree and settled 10 yards away. And then he hit a shot his caddie described as a “low, cutty, spinny gap wedge” to 18 feet and made the putt. That might have been as great a shot as any he hit.

“It was the best bogey I’ve ever made in my life, that’s for sure,” Thomas said.

He'll remember that one.

Zalatoris will remember his own adventures on that hole, the gust of wind that sent his shot so far over the green it disappeared into the hedges blocking the view of Southern Hills along 61st Street. He took a penalty shot and played the next one off a crease in the cart path.

Mito Pereira won't ever forget his birdie putt on the 17th hole stopping one revolution from falling into the cup for a birdie that would have given him a two-shot lead. Or his driver that bounded over the ledge into a stream and led to a double bogey.

Instead of becoming Chile's first major champion, Pereira became a footnote in history as a player who led on the final hole of major and lost with double bogey or worse. Phil Mickelson was the last player to do that, in the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.

There will be debate whether this PGA Championship was won or lost. The back nine was littered with mistakes by players who had never won on the PGA Tour, others who had never contended in a major. Bad scores was as much a result of nerves as tough pins.

But it's worth noting that of the last 14 players who teed off Sunday, Thomas at 3-under 67 was the only one to break par. And he played the final three holes of the tournament, including the playoff, with six birdies, seven pars, no mistakes.

Still, it was unlike anything Southern Hills had ever seen in its heritage of hosting majors.

This was the course where all seven major champions held at least a share over the final 36 holes. Excitement was rare. The only drama had been at the 2001 U.S. Open when Retief Goosen three-putted from 12 feet on the final hole and had to win the next day in a playoff.

Ultimately, Southern Hills lived up to its reputation for producing great champions.

Six of the previous seven winners are in the World Golf Hall of Fame — Woods, Goosen, Nick Price, Raymond Floyd, Hubert Green and Tommy Bolt. The exception is Dave Stockton, worthy of consideration given his two PGA titles among his 10 victories.

Thomas, 29, now has 15 wins and two majors. In the last 60 years, the only other players to achieve that before turning 30 were Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Rory McIlroy and Woods.

Thomas was more emotional at Southern Hills than when he won at Quail Hollow in 2017. Part of that going five years without a major, more than year without any trophy.

“I think it's easy to start letting some doubt creep in, just kind of like, ‘All right, what’s going to happen? When is it going to happen? Is it going to happen?'”

Good thing he didn't asked how it would happen. Even when it was over, it was hard to explain. And even if he hadn't paused on the 18th green, it still would be hard to forget.


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