CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Justin Thomas came of age on the Green Mile. The Wanamaker Trophy was waiting for him, and what a story would be. A third-generation PGA member. A face in the new wave of golf, only three months older than close pal Jordan Spieth. The hard-luck story from the U.S. Open, who had stormed into contention with a 63 on Saturday at Erin Hills, and faded away just as quickly with a 75 on Sunday.
So the 5-foot-10, 145-pound native son of Kentucky was about to seem a lot bigger, holding off a leaderboard filled with men just like him — desperate to win a first major. There was a one-shot lead, and three holes to play.
It was time for Justin Thomas’ rite of passage. The Green Mile was waiting.
“I was a lot more comfortable and calm than I thought I would be,” he would say later. “Just kind of going through those holes knowing that I’ve done this a million times. I know that’s a cliché, and everyone says it.”
Nos. 16-18 at Quail Hollow had been a scoring graveyard, giving up only 88 birdies this week, and exacting 464 bogeys or worse. But it was there that Thomas pushed out his horizons in Sunday’s fading light. It was there he clinched the 99th PGA Championship.
Thomas won three tour events early this season, but it was there at the Green Mile that the sport’s newest star was born, afterward getting a hug from his PGA pro father Mike, wishing only his grandfather back home could be here to see it, too. He called him soon after.
Justin Thomas is a champion born to play golf. He first knew that as a kid, watching Tiger Woods win the PGA in 2000 back home in Louisville, listening to the roars that day at Valhalla, dreaming of the time they would be for him.
“For me, the PGA definitely had a special place in my heart. And maybe a special drive,” he said later, the Wanamaker Trophy by his side. “It’s just a great win for the family and a moment we’ll never forget.
“I know that a major champion is something that will never be taken away from you, after my name. Hopefully, I’m going to win some more, plenty more, a lot more, whatever.
“I know you can’t get to two until you get one.”
And the first one had to be secured in the cauldron of the Green Mile. First, there was a saved par on No. 16, after he missed the fairway and hit into a bunker.
Then, a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 17, after a fearless 7-iron, with the water sitting there, staring him in the face, perfectly able to swallow his chances. “That was one of the best golf shots I’ve probably ever hit in my life,” he said. “That shot, I’ll never forget that vision in my head. It landing and getting closer … ”
On the way to the No. 17 green, he tried to wolf down a quick snack. “I started coughing and I was like, ‘Am I really going to choke? Is this a sign to come?’ The things you think about when you get in those situations.”
No, it wasn’t a sign.
By No, 18, with a three-shot lead and the crowd chanting “J.T! J.T!” the work was nearly done. He finished with a play-it-safe bogey for a 68. The young man who once got a Jack Nicklaus autograph now has his name on the same trophy. Next time he has dinner with Spieth — as he did Saturday night — they both will have major championships to talk about. He is in the shadow of his friend no more.
There to congratulate him were buddies from his close-knit golf generation; Spieth, Rickie Fowler, even Bud Cauley, who had a 9:35 a.m. tee time Sunday and had been finished for hours. “That shows where the game is now,” Thomas said.
And he had sensed it coming along.
“I just had an unbelievable calmness throughout the week, throughout the day,” he said. “I really truly felt like I was going to win.”
Indeed, his girlfriend was in town but had scheduled a 7 p.m. flight out. He advised her to change it. “I don’t want you to miss this.”
That dark Sunday at the U.S. Open had taught him something about patience. “I just didn’t handle it well,” he said. This Sunday was very different. He played the final 12 holes at 4-under par.
And so the day was his. It was not for Kevin Kisner, whose sound-as-granite game finally wavered, with four bogeys and a double. Not for Hideki Matsuyama, whose chances wilted with five bogeys on the back, as all Japan mourned. And it was not for Chris Stroud, his Cinderella story cut short by a 76, learning what putting can be like on Sunday at a major.
“It starts out physical and it becomes mental,” he said afterward. “My caddie is like, ‘Hey, quit worrying about it.’ I’m like, ‘It’s hard not to worry about it.’”
No, it was Thomas’ time. You could tell that at the 5 o’clock hour, when he was in a five-way tie at the top of the board. Twenty-five minutes later — Kisner, Stroud, Matsuyama and Francesco Molinari all having fallen back with bogeys — he had the lead to himself. He would never let it go.
You could tell when he chipped in from the fairway for a birdie on No. 13 to keep rolling. “Probably the most berserk I’ve ever gone on the golf course,” he said. “I’m kind of interested to see how I looked for that.”
Actually, you suspected it before that. You knew something was up at No. 10.
It was there his drive hit a tree … then bounced into the fairway.
Later, his birdie putt stopped on the left edge of the cup. It … just … sat … there. Peeking in. Thomas walked away, hoping for an assist from either good fortune or gravity. The masses around No. 10 waited and counted. And on the 11th second, more or less, it fell in. Thomas didn’t even see it drop. But he tipped his hat to the gods.
“Honestly, I swear, when it got there I was like, ‘This ball has to go in. There’s no way it can stay there,”’ he said. “I threw a little fit to see what would happen. Gravity took over.”
The Hanging Putt, to be talked about in clubhouses everywhere.
So another first-timer broke through. On this last day of the 2017 majors, some of the big names finally stirred. Dustin Johnson with a 67, Rory McIlroy with a 68, Spieth with a 33 on the back and 70. Alas, too late, good for Sunday smiles but no Sunday charge.
They were left to keep the unsatisfying week in perspective. Spieth kept in mind the Open Championship victory and contention at Augusta. “If I did this every year, I would go down as the greatest ever to play the game,” he said. “I need to look at it that way, and I am.”
McIlroy talked of taking time off to get healthy. “I want to get back in the winner’s circle. You don’t want to be teeing off at 9:45 on the final round of a major on Sunday. That is not where you want to be.”
Where you want to be is where Thomas was Sunday evening, calling his grandfather to share the moment.
“This is the first of many,” Paul Thomas told his grandson.
Maybe so. It all started Sunday.