CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This PGA Championship was determined late, when Justin Thomas broke free of a pack on the back nine and built a three-shot lead. It was perhaps predetermined about 20 years ago, when the little kid, son and grandson of club pros, first announced that he was going to win a major.
As much as anyone, Thomas was born to play in the tournament that is run by club professionals — the people who teach their students how to hit pure iron shots, make putts and keep their poise. All of the things that allowed Thomas to shoot 3-under-par 68 Sunday, finish at 8 under and hoist the Wanamaker Trophy.
“You want to win any major,” he said. “For me, the PGA definitely had a special place in my heart.”
Among those who appreciated it the most was the man who first put a club in Thomas’ little hands, his dad, Mike. “My dad’s a PGA member, I’m a PGA member. It’s just special,” the champion’s father said, showing the winning golf ball that will become the centerpiece of a Justin Thomas display in Mike’s Harmony Landing Golf Club pro shop in Goshen, Kentucky. Justin’s grandfather Paul spoke with the champion from his home in Ohio.
Justin made all the big shots he needed, just when he needed them, in a wobbly start and down the stretch — sinking a chip shot for birdie on the par-3 13th and brazenly hitting a 6-iron toward the pin on the difficult, water-guarded 17th and making a birdie 2 there as well. Early in the back nine, he was part of a five-way tie for first, but no one kept up with him. Despite making bogey on No. 18, he won by two over Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed and Louis Oosthuizen.
“I felt like I was ready. It was just about going out and doing it,” the 24-year-old said after his first major victory.
Regardless of three PGA Tour wins this season, Thomas often has been overshadowed by his longtime close friend Jordan Spieth. “Frustration probably isn’t the right word. Jealousy definitely is,” Thomas said.
In fact, this week figured to be largely about Spieth, as he was attempting to become the youngest ever to complete the career Grand Slam. As it turned out, Spieth did celebrate near the 18th green Sunday but he did so as a spectator, watching Thomas become the fourth-youngest PGA champion.
Spieth and Rickie Fowler, who made a run on the back nine and tied for fifth at 5 under, were there to congratulate Thomas on a strong day. The victor said the key probably was making a putt to save bogey on the first hole. “Starting with double there would have been terrible,” Thomas said, mindful that he had been in the final group at the U.S. Open but wilted early.
On Sunday, he kept getting stronger.
“He’s a stud. He’s been in the winner’s circle a few times,” said Kevin Kisner, who had led or shared the lead each of the first three days but fell into a tie for seventh. “He has grown up on this tour.”
Actually, Thomas has grown up in PGA of America events. He took it all seriously. Because he knew the pros all wore long pants, he eschewed shorts in junior events. He was seven when his dad brought him to Valhalla in Louisville to watch Tiger Woods win the 2000 PGA Championship. The youngster got Jack Nicklaus’ autograph.
Even before that, he set his sights on being a major champion. “That was when he was five or six,” Mike said. “But I said that, too, and I [expletive].”
The dad was impressed with the son’s maturity, particularly after hitting it poorly Saturday. The elder Thomas recalled discussions over the winter about the difference between being emotional and being angry. Justin was more the former, after he saw his birdie putt drop on No. 10, following a few seconds of hovering on the lip.
Someone asked about the best lesson Mike ever has given him and Justin said, “Probably, ‘Just enjoy it.’ He didn’t mean just golf.”
Family and friends had much to enjoy Sunday. When Spieth gave Mike Thomas an emphatic hug, the winner’s dad said, “Glad to join you.”
Spieth replied, “No, no, no, no. I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t know what winning the PGA is like.”
Justin Thomas had an idea of what it would be like long ago.