CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There’s no way to prepare for it, no mental exercises to gird yourself for the stomach-churning mix of anticipation and expectation and realization.
There’s no way to know how you’ll react when the crowd is chanting your name.
And when the Steadicam is a few feet from your face.
And when the unmistakable sensation hits that your heart might jump right out of your chest.
And yet …
Justin Thomas – the occasionally brilliant, often combustible 24-year-old – felt a strange calmness all day Sunday at Quail Hollow.
In fact, he was so calm, and so confident, that he told his girlfriend, Jillian Wisniewski, to change her 6:06 p.m. flight home to Chicago.
“I don’t want you to miss this,” he said. “I feel like I’m going to get it done.”
All it took were two big breaks, a timely chip-in and a career shot for Thomas to conquer the toughest closing stretch in golf, emerge from a five-way tie and capture the 99th PGA Championship.
This was no ordinary first-timer.
“I truly felt like I was going to win,” he said.
There is meaningful golf still to play this year, but the PGA put an exclamation point on a breakout campaign for Thomas, who shot 59, set a U.S. Open scoring record, earned a PGA Tour-best fourth victory of the season and now becomes the favorite for Player of the Year.
“It’s huge for me,” he said. “Who knows what will happen, but it’s just big for my year.”
First-time major winners and Quail Hollow’s treacherous back nine shouldn't mix, like flannel shirts and Charlotte humidity, but Thomas played so expertly that he could afford a few slip-ups on the 72nd hole. After a closing 68, he won at 8-under 276, two shots clear of Patrick Reed, Louis Oosthuizen and Francesco Molinari.
A week that began with Jordan Spieth’s pursuit of the career Grand Slam ended with one of his close friends joining golf’s young elite.
Spieth and Thomas are obviously tight – remember #SB2K17? – but they’ve long had a friendly and complicated relationship, ever since their junior days. The same age, Spieth was always one step ahead, whether it was a U.S. Junior or an NCAA Championship or a PGA Tour breakthrough or a major title. Irritatingly, Thomas became known mostly as Spieth’s “good buddy.”
Despite capturing four Tour titles, Thomas had yet to escape Spieth's considerable shadow, remaining winless in the category – majors – that mattered most.
“Frustration probably isn’t the right word – jealously definitely is,” he said. “I wanted to be doing that, and I wasn’t.”
At the back of the clubhouse Sunday night, Spieth, who had finished four hours earlier and tied for 28th, sought out and hugged Justin's father, Mike Thomas.
“I’ve known you guys too long,” he said.
“We had to join you,” Thomas replied.
Later, when asked to reflect on the budding rivalry, Mike Thomas conceded: “This is huge. This lets Justin know he can do this.”
Most players require a major heartbreak before they’re ready to win one of their own, and Thomas’ disappointment came two months ago at the U.S. Open. In the third round, he fired a tournament-record, 9-under 63 – sorry, Johnny – to surge into the final pairing, one back of the leader. But with a long wait before his final-round tee time, he admitted to getting caught up in the social-media buzz and then lost his patience after a rough start. He dropped into a tie for ninth at Erin Hills, then missed three consecutive cuts.
Thomas’ week at Quail Hollow began inauspiciously, too, with a 2-over 73, but he moved back into contention with a Friday 66.
It was his Friday 69, however, that won him the PGA. Wayward with his ball-striking, he still managed to play the final 12 holes in 3 under to draw within two shots of third-round leader Kevin Kisner.
Before meeting with the media Saturday night, Thomas headed to the range with his dad, the only swing coach he’s ever had. They worked on Thomas’ body lines with his driver and his cut shots with his irons. They focused on his psyche, too.
“You don’t want to end your day on a negative thought,” he said.
Funny, because Thomas has been criticized in some corners for his on-course comportment, for his emotional outbursts, for his slumped shoulders and club slams. All of the blowback prompted a recent heart-to-heart with his dad.
“We’ve spent time the past year asking, Are you emotional or are you angry? Let’s make a distinction,” Mike said. “He’s 24. He’s going to get more mature, and he showed a lot of maturity this week. [Saturday] was the day that he didn’t play well, and his maturity allowed him to grind out a score.”
That maturity also allowed him to stay in the game Sunday after an unsettling opening hole in the final round, when he bladed his greenside bunker shot and needed to hole a 20-footer for bogey.
“I was a lot more comfortable and calm than I thought I would be,” he said.
Thomas made three birdies around the turn to create a logjam at the top. None was more unlikely than the 10th hole.
Needing to hug the left side to carry the bunker, Thomas’ tee shot crashed into the trees.
“Get lucky,” he begged. “Just spit it out for me, please.”
Out came his ball, into the middle of the fairway.
“See,” he said, returning the club to caddie Jimmy Johnson. “That’s why you ask.”
Even more pleading was necessary on his birdie putt, which hung on the lip of the cup for 12 seconds.
“I threw a little fit to try and see what would happen,” Thomas said, “and gravity took over.”
Said Johnson: “I thought it might be our day, like that might be an omen. You never know. But you have to have good things happen to you to win a golf tournament.”
And they kept happening, like Thomas’ 40-foot chip-in on 13, busting him out of a five-way tie and suddenly giving him a two-shot cushion.
“Probably the most berserk I’ve ever gotten on the course,” he said.
After a clutch save out of the bunker on 16, Thomas launched a 200-yard 7-iron that never left his target on the watery 17th. His ball landed on the ridge and trickled toward the hole, 15 feet away.
“One of the best shots I’ve ever hit in my life,” Thomas said. “That shot, I’ll never forget that vision in my head.”
Nor will he soon forget the roar that followed when his birdie putt dropped.
Anywhere on dry land was the play on the diabolical 18th hole, and Thomas’ bogey cost him nothing but a three-shot margin of victory.
The symmetry was impossible to ignore. His father, Mike, is a PGA professional (Goshen, Ky.). So is his grandfather, Paul, who was watching at home in Columbus, Ohio, and received the first call from the winner. “You’re something else,” Paul said. “This is the first of many.”
Mike Thomas was the first to greet Justin as he walked off the 18th green, the victory all but secured. Charging toward his only son, arms spread wide, Mike engulfed him in a bear hug and spoke for many who witnessed the macho finish.
“That was f------ unbelievable,” he said.
The victory lap continued along the rope line, where they were swarmed by family and friends, by Spieth and by Fowler.
“So awesome, dude,” Spieth said.
“Way to ball out,” added Fowler.
The crowd still buzzing behind them, Justin and Mike Thomas climbed up the scaffolding together. The clubhouse was now in sight. The Wanamaker Trophy was waiting, too.
Shoulder to shoulder, they couldn’t stop smiling, the PGA pro dad and PGA champion son.