15 March 2021: American star Justin Thomas clinched a thrilling one-shot victory for his first PLAYERS title and 14th PGA TOUR win at The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass after he held off veteran Englishman Lee Westwood, who finished solo second, and Bryson DeChambeau in tied third place with Brian Harman. Thomas fired a 68 for a winning score of 14-under 274, with overnight leader Westwood returning a 72.
Justin Thomas had just won THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass, and now Mike Thomas, his father, struggled to form words. Once he had composed himself, he was asked what Paul Thomas – Mike’s late father, Justin’s grandfather – would have said about the performance.
“He would have just said, ‘Good round, bub,’” Mike said with a laugh after Justin had signed for a 4-under 68 to beat Lee Westwood (72) by one. “He always said ‘bub’ to everything.”
Paul Thomas, who paved the way for the golfing Thomas men, died at 89 last month. He played in the 1960 and ’61 PGA Championships, and the ’62 U.S. Open, and spent his life teaching the game in Zanesville, Ohio. He begat Mike, himself a lifelong PGA professional in Kentucky, who begat Justin, whose round Sunday was, to be fair, better than good.
While others melted down, Thomas went 5 under on holes 9-12, including an eagle at the par-5 11th hole, to seize control. He went even par the rest of the way for his 14th PGA TOUR victory.
Brian Harman (69) and Bryson DeChambeau (71) tied for third, two back.
It hasn’t been very long – about five weeks – since Mike broke the news to his son the night before the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Justin, mourning the loss of his grandfather, played the next day with a heavy heart, carding a 72 for a T13 finish. He said he knew he had to play, and that Grandpa would have wanted him to stick it out. He couldn’t focus. He felt shattered. It was, he said, the hardest round of golf he’s ever played.
“Heaven got a good one,” he later wrote on Instagram, but he had barely begun to process his grandfather’s passing when the next piece of awful news rolled in. Barely two weeks later, after Thomas missed the cut at The Genesis Invitational, Tiger Woods, a close friend and his Presidents Cup partner, was seriously injured in a single-car accident in Los Angeles.
Already glum after a tough couple of weeks, Thomas took it hard. “I kept telling everyone on my team or my family I’m ready for something good to happen this year,” he said.
Added Mike Thomas, “We’ve been through a lot, the last couple months. I think it affected Justin quite a bit. He just kind of has not been himself the last month or so.”
He was on Sunday, which was drenched in just as much sunshine as any other day of this long-awaited PLAYERS – the first in two years because of the virus – but with more butterflies.
DeChambeau topped his drive 143 yards into the lake at the par-4 fourth hole, the trajectory of the shot recalling not so much a parabola as a defective popcorn kernel.
Westwood sliced his tee shot way right, his ball splashing down in the same pond.
“Those were worse than most,” NBC’s David Feherty said.
Westwood made bogey, DeChambeau double-bogey. Any comfort they might have felt from getting their regular game back together – they also had made up the last tee time at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, won by DeChambeau – seemed to have evaporated.
Suddenly the chasers now had new life. Corey Conners (66, T7) was 6 under through 14 and two back. So were Sergio Garcia (72, T9), the 2008 champion, and Thomas, despite being stuck on the par train through his first six holes. Even Paul Casey (70, T5) was threatening.
It was anybody’s tournament, but that’s when Thomas kick-started his run with a towering 5-iron second shot to the par-5 ninth hole. It left him an easy two-putt birdie.
“The most impressive shot? There were a lot of them,” said his caddie, Jimmy Johnson. “The 5-iron on nine. He hadn’t missed a fairway or a green through that part, so I knew he had it today.”
Thomas mostly looked down or straight ahead on the long walks from greens to tees. He birdied 10, and eagled 11, his 4-iron second shot stopping some 19 feet behind the flag. He went over the green at the drivable par-4 12th hole and nearly chipped it in.
He missed a kick-in par putt on 14, which Westwood later birdied, but got his nose ahead again with another two-putt birdie at the par-5 16th hole. Westwood failed to match, and Thomas iced it with white-knuckle pars on 17 (long two-putt from the front of the green) and 18. His tee shot barely avoided trickling over the bulkhead and into the giant water hazard left of the fairway.
Thomas had done it, coming all the way back from what he called a crappy couple of months.
“I thought about him this morning,” he said of his grandfather. “I think about him every day but thought about him this morning and then I think when I saw my dad walking up 18. That was the first time during or since I teed off on one when I really thought about him.”
Laser-like long irons, a steady nerve, an inward 32 – Thomas was all in on this round. But, yeah, there’s no doubt Paul Thomas would have liked this one. Lessons and stories, all of it passed down from generation to generation, and look what it all added up to. Look what the kid did.
Good round, bub.
Si Woo Kim secures top ten
Korea’s Si Woo Kim enjoyed a tied ninth finish at THE PLAYERS Championship following a roller-coaster final round 1-under 71 on Sunday while countryman Sungjae Im settled for a share of 17th place after a closing 66 which put him in a good mood ahead of his defence at The Honda Classic later this week.
Kim, the 2017 PLAYERS Champion, made five birdies against four bogeys to finish six shots back of Thomas, and enjoyed his first top-10 since winning a third PGA TOUR title at The American Express in January.
After a disappointing 77 in the third round which knocked him out of contention in the PGA TOUR’s flagship tournament, Im produced his second 6-under round of the week with one eagle on 11, six birdies and a double bogey on 15. It put Im in a good frame of mind ahead of his defence at The Honda Classic, which he won for his first PGA TOUR title last season. “Before I teed off today, I focused on getting my good feelings back, which I had in the second round. That helped me a lot on the golf course, as I created many chances for birdies,” said the 22-year-old.
“I was quite solid until the third round. But I think I was little greedy (on Saturday), and I lost my control mentally and did not play my own game. Thankfully I recovered and had good round and that makes me feel good.”
After making the turn in 33 with birdies on Hole Nos. 2, 3 and 7, Im nailed a gorgeous hybrid shot from 215 meters to about five feet for his eagle on par-5 11th hole. He sank three more birdies on his back nine, including one on the 18th hole.
“Golf is hard. You can make a good score today, and also you can mess it up the next day,” said Im. “Everybody wants to play well every day, but that’s not easy. Everything was not good yesterday, but today, everything worked including my driver, iron play and putting. That’s golf.”
He is looking forward to a return to PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens to defend the Honda title. “This will be my first time defending. I will prepare well and be ready for that. I will try to stay calm and focus on my own game,” he said.