Justin Thomas stood a few steps off the 18th green at Kapalua, took his hat off and shook his head as Xander Schauffele addressed his ball. Less than an hour later, he crouched in nearly the same spot as Patrick Reed lined up an equally critical putt of his own.
Minutes after that, Thomas exhaled and raced to get his hands on the Sentry Tournament of Champions trophy that he very nearly let get away.
It was a wild end to the first PGA Tour event of the new year, with what appeared like a two-man race turning into a three-man playoff that nearly extended to Monday because of darkness. Nearly all of the highlights (and lowlights) were confined to the 18th hole, a dramatic par-5 that hosted each of the three playoff holes and quickly went from Thomas’ undoing to the site of his third win in his last seven starts.
Starting the day one shot behind Schauffele, Thomas walked to the eighth tee two shots back before catching fire. Four straight birdies followed, then two more on Nos. 14 and 15 amid blustery winds, turning the tide and giving him a two-shot cushion heading into the closing stretch.
“I truly felt like through 15 holes it was one of the best rounds I’ve ever played,” Thomas said. “I was in such control. Tee to green, I was putting it beautifully, my irons were awesome.”
The lead was still one for Thomas in the 72nd fairway when he uncorked perhaps his worst shot of the week at the worst possible time. With the entire island of Maui available to him down the right side of the downhill fairway, he instead snap-hooked a fairway wood into the penalty area lining the left side of the green. It led to a bogey and seemed to hand the title to Schauffele, who needed only two putts from 35 feet for the win.
Except Schauffele couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain, racing an eagle putt well past and missing the comeback attempt. He three-putted again on the first playoff hole, this time from much farther away, to bring his title defense to an abrupt and unexpected close.
“I should have won the tournament. I think I know it, everyone knows it,” Schauffele said. “I mean, JT was right there, but with the circumstances given, I should have closed it out and I didn’t. I kind of did everything that I was supposed to until the last moment, which sucks.”
The struggles of the final pairing opened the door for an unlikely playoff participant: Reed, who rode a hot putter to the clubhouse lead at 14 under but never expected that total to earn him a spot in overtime.
Reed’s antics over the last month have been well-documented, from a blatant rules infraction at the Hero World Challenge to fan heckles and a confrontation at the Presidents Cup that got his caddie banned from his final match. Watching from the scoring area as Thomas and Schauffele both botched the home hole, Reed was seen on camera grinning as a chance to add an unlikely win to his eventful recent stretch seemingly appeared out of thin air.
Reed had exactly one club to thank for his success this week, as he racked up 45 one-putts during the week – 13 more than the next best player. But that club faltered in overtime when he needed it the most, as makeable putts to win on the second extra hole and to extend the proceedings on hole No. 3 both missed the mark. The latter try elicited a “cheater” call from a member of the gallery, indicating that the controversy surrounding Reed won’t dissipate anytime soon.
“I went out and had to shoot a low number, especially with how windy it was today, give myself an opportunity, and I did,” said Reed, who closed with a 7-under 66. “Unfortunately I had a putt, well two putts really to close it. One of them I got gusted on and on this last one, with the wind and the break, it just got me again.”
It all paved the way for Thomas, although the eventual winner still had one more aberrant swing to unleash from the 18th fairway. This time it was a chunked, pop-fly fairway wood more befitting a local member-guest than a PGA Tour playoff. But Thomas got another fortunate break when his misfire was both long enough to clear the greenside hazard and also short enough to leave him with a full wedge that he stuffed to 3 feet for the winning birdie.
“For some reason, I was supposed to win this week,” Thomas said. “I got very fortunate, but I also stuck to my process and tried to stay positive. Just tried to tell myself there’s a reason I’m still here and we’ve got a chance to win.”
Despite the unconventional route to victory, this adds yet another line to Thomas’ quickly growing resume. An underwhelming 2019 derailed by a wrist injury turned around in a hurry with his runaway win at the BMW Championship in August, and he added another trophy at the CJ Cup in the fall. This victory, his second at Kapalua in the last four years, caps a run of 11 worldwide starts dating back to July in which Thomas has finished lower than 12th just once.
His 12 PGA Tour victories are the most of any active player under 30, and he joins an exclusive list with Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead by reaching that number before his 27th birthday. And yes, 12 is one more Tour title than Jordan Spieth has to his name.
The close at Kapalua was certainly more eventful than he had hoped, but Thomas is likely content to let the trophy do the talking. With Brooks Koepka still sidelined, Dustin Johnson on the comeback trail and Tiger Woods weeks from a competitive return, Thomas has stamped his name as the hottest in American golf heading into the new year – flawed approach shots and all.
“At the end of the day, you need stuff to go your way and it definitely did today,” Thomas said. “It feels great, and I’m glad to be coming back here.”