There is always a first time. Even if you are a 12-time PGA TOUR winner. Justin Thomas came from behind – the first time in his career from as far as fifth on the third round leader board, four strokes adrift when play began on Sunday at TPC Southwind. He was also four back when he won the CIMB Classic in 2016, but never as far back as fifth on the leader board. In fact, Thomas held the 54-hole lead in 8 of his 13 victories. Thomas is the third-youngest golfer to win 13 times on the PGA TOUR behind Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. That is about as elite as its gets in golf.
Thomas played with spectacular precision and control on a tense Sunday, when as many as five golfers shared the lead at one stage. He shot 65 to secure a three-shot victory over Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Tom Lewis and Daniel Berger. Thomas ended the week at 13-under 267, with the four men behind him closing on 270.
The victory, the second of his career, at the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational helped Thomas replace Jon Rahm at the top of the rankings. The American was also atop the rankings for four weeks after the Players Championship in 2018.
Thomas set the stage for his victory with a serene 31 through the front nine, making every green but one, guiding his putts with a steady hand. He could have been his worst enemy on the day, but a slice of good fortune helped Thomas salvage a poorly executed tee shot with a stellar second shot. At the 15th hole, his ball appeared destined to get wet, before the cart path provided it just enough bounce to stay out of the creek that runs on the left side.
Meanwhile, Brooks Koepka, who was neck and neck with Thomas overcooked his pitching wedge. He overshot the green at 16 and took a bogey on his card. That helped Thomas enjoy a two stroke advantage, heading into the climactic moments of this thrilling encounter. But Koepka is made of stern material. He produced a sensational birdie from the fringe on the 17th, the 40-foot stroke of brilliance giving him a scent of hope again as he marched up the 18th tee.
On the 18th, Thomas stayed right enough to avoid any dalliance with the water. But Koepka got wet with his driver and a terrific chip to save par by Thomas secured him one of the most memorable victories of his young career.
“I remember that day kind of being just at ease and just not worried about Anirban (Lahiri, the 54-hole leader) and other guys that were ahead of me,” Thomas said, recalling a similar situation at the CIMB Classic in 2016. “I was just strictly trying to make as many birdies as I could because I can’t control what everybody else does.
“And that’s what I tried to do today.”
Thomas also drew from the lessons learnt at the Workday Charity Open. Collin Morikawa won a tense playoff three weeks ago, after Thomas bogeyed twice in the last three holes to surrender a three stroke advantage after 15 holes on Sunday.
“I just didn’t get ahead of myself anytime those last two, three holes, where I felt like my mind was kind of wandering and maybe thinking about winning,” Thomas said. “I basically just told myself to shut up and figure out what you’re doing because I could lose that tournament just as easily as I won it today. I was really, really proud of myself to stay in the moment and get it done.”
It was a victory built on the strength of ball striking, something that the TPC Southwind is famous for asking of its suitors. Seven of the last nine winners at the venue have dominated the tee to green numbers, as did Thomas. A 13th victory takes Thomas one clear of Dustin Johnson as the most prolific men over the past five years.
It was another painful Sunday for Brendon Todd. Already a two-time winner this season, Todd surrendered the 54-hole lead also for a second time this season. He was the front runner at the Travelers Championship too. And he did not make a single birdie in either of those rounds. In the end he shot a 75 in Memphis and settled for a disappointing T15.
Henrik Stenson had a unique week. He made 62 pars, the most by a man in 21 years, since Jeff Sluman made the same amount of pars at the John Deere Classic in 1999.