TULSA, Okla. – On the eve of the final round of the 104th PGA Championship, Justin Thomas said all the right things. He said there was a chance, even as he eyed a seven-stroke deficit, but he didn’t believe that. He couldn’t believe that, could he?
Even if conventional wisdom was on his side – with the little-known and even less experienced Mito Pereira holding down the 54-hole advantage – history was not.
Paul Lawrie holds the record for a comeback victory in a major championship with his 10-stroke miracle at the 1999 Open Championship. But Pereira was no Jean Van de Velde, was he?
It probably didn’t fuel anyone’s confidence that JT went straight to Southern Hills’ practice tee following his third-round 74, which left him mired in seventh place and a touchdown (and the kick) shy of Pereira’s total.
Sure, there was always a chance. That’s the way golf and math work. But it wasn’t just Pereira that JT had to worry about on a gloomy day at the now-quintessential May PGA, which featured temperatures in the 90s for much of the week before a cold front transformed the event into something akin to an Open Championship.
It didn’t help JT’s outlook that his Saturday evening range session was not simply performative. He was searching. He was angry. He needed answers.
Earlier in the week, JT had talked about his relationship with his father, Mike, who is also his swing coach. Being a father, Mike Thomas has a tendency, according to his famous son, of sugarcoating things when a little tough love might be in order. But late Saturday as Southern Hills emptied, it wasn’t Mike Thomas who spoke truth to power, it was caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay.
“I've had a lot of chances to win tournaments, and it's a hard golf course; it's a major championship. You don't have to be perfect,” Thomas said when asked Bones’ message. “I'm fully confident in saying that I wouldn't be standing here if he didn't give me - it wasn't necessarily a speech, but a talk, if you will.”
As inspired as Mackay’s words were, however, they didn’t change the math and Sunday didn’t get off to a textbook come-from-behind start with a bogey at No. 3 that dropped JT eight shots back with 15 holes to play.
Mike Thomas and Mackay had attempted to minimize the mountain that stood between JT and his second PGA Championship. He wasn’t going to run down Pereira with a single shot or a single hole, so it was best to keep things to bite-sized goals.
“What we said this morning is, we’re four shots back from second place. Try to catch those 6s [under],” Mike Thomas said.
Mackay, who spent most of his career working for Phil Mickelson, knows enough about the shades of victory and defeat at major championships and observed: “It seemed like a course you can come back on.”
JT also felt like he had history on his side. With the exception of Stewart Cink and Bubba Watson, who began the final round tied with Thomas at 2 under par, no one inside the top 9 had won a major. There was also the harsh reality that Pereira was playing in just his second major championship and for the first time on the weekend. As learning curves go, this would be brutal.
The golf ball doesn’t know resumes, but there’s something to be questioned about a road less traveled.
“There's a lot of great players ahead of me, but I know that they hadn't won a major before, and I know I hadn't won in a while,” Thomas said. “I just remember how tough it was, and I remember how tough it is now to win.”
Following a tee shot at the sixth hole that JT admitted was a “shank,” he turned at even par and was six shots back, still not what one would consider Position A. But he started to chip away.
He rolled in a 64-footer from the fringe short of the 11th green, which qualified as his longest putt of the week, and added a 17-footer at the 12th hole, both for birdie. JT admitted he didn’t spend Sunday watching leaderboards. Why would he? But the birdie at No. 12 felt different. It felt important.
“There's just different roars, different energy that you can feel sometimes, and I felt that that one was pretty big,” Thomas said. “I got a little bit of goosebumps when that went in. Just like, all right, I don't know where I'm at, but I'm in striking distance.”
In truth, he was probably on the fringe of “striking distance.” Thomas knew all along that unless he went out and carded a record round, he was going to need some help from Pereira. But while the PGA Tour rookie had been shaky, he was still in control when he stepped to the 18th tee with a one-stroke lead.
By that time, Thomas had become a spectator. JT had hit his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the short 17th hole for an up-and-down birdie, and given himself a look at birdie at the last with a sublime 8-iron. But he couldn't convert. His closing 67 and 5-under total left him a stroke off Pereira’s pace.
Thomas watched Pereira play the 17th hole (par) and he lingered just long enough to see the Chilean hit his drive on the 18th hole into a creek, before heading to the range to warm up for a potential playoff. He didn’t see Mito make a complete mess of the final hole, compounding his poor drive with a few shaky shots en route to a double-bogey 6, but he heard it.
The record will show Thomas was a machine in the playoff against Will Zalatoris, who closed with 71 for a share of the lead. The three-hole aggregate frame included birdies at the first (No. 13) and second (No. 17) holes for Thomas, before he calmly two-putted for par at the last (No. 18).
It took JT 21 holes and nearly six hours, and by the time he was finished the gloom that had hung low over Southern Hills for two days had been replaced by a brilliant twilight and lengthening shadows. When Thomas won his first major at the 2017 PGA Championship, he conceded that he didn’t enjoy the moment the way he would have liked. He wouldn’t make that mistake this time.
“I just was walking up 18 in the playoff, and I knew it wasn't over, but I looked up and I wanted to take it in because you don't know when and if it's going to happen again, and it's such an unbelievable, cool feeling that you just want to enjoy it,” he said.
It was a moment that Thomas believed was possible when he started the day even when the rest of us probably didn’t.