The ball hung there on the lip of the 10th hole, three seconds, five seconds, ten seconds. Justin Thomas paced, knowing that he needed it to fall, knowing that he had no room for error at a PGA Championship where half a dozen other golfers lurked all around him.
Golf is a game of inches. pic.twitter.com/P58j1DAI37
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) August 13, 2017
And then the ball dropped, and Thomas’s life changed forever.
(Purists would complain that Thomas waited too long for the putt to drop, that the birdie putt shouldn’t have counted because it took longer than 10 seconds for the ball to drop. But golf’s rules are vague enough that Thomas had wiggle room to “approach” the ball while waiting for it to drop. Plus, this isn’t the U.S. Open; nitpicking rules officials took the afternoon off.)
Sure, it would take another eight holes for Thomas to get his hands on the Wanamaker Trophy, but make no mistake: that ball falling in that cup was the pivot point of Thomas’s career. Emboldened by the birdie, Thomas would go on to shoot the vicious Quail Hollow back nine in two under, counting an irrelevant bogey on 18, keeping his head as everyone around him lost theirs. He finished with an eight-under 68, leaving a flailing field in his wake.
Thomas’s victory came only after the 20 most tense and tumultuous major-tournament moments of the entire year. At 5:10 p.m. Eastern, shortly after the leaders made the turn, Francesco Molinari pitched in a 27-foot birdie chip on the 15th hole to drop to seven-under, and right into a scrum for the lead.
With eight holes remaining in the season’s final major, five men stood tied atop the leaderboard: Molinari, Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama, Chris Stroud and Kevin Kisner. And suddenly, a tournament that had offered up a lot more rain than fire took flight.
And just as suddenly as it all came together, everything blew apart. Kisner, who’d held at least a share of the overnight lead every night of the tournament, was the first to blink, bogeying 11. Stroud followed with a bogey of his own, and just ahead, Matsuyama hit the second of what would be three straight bogeys to end his own reign atop the leaderboard. Thomas kept the lead with a mere par at 12 as, up ahead, Patrick Reed elbowed his way into the conversation with a birdie on 14 that put him a stroke off the lead. Molinari followed his brilliant birdie with an ugly bogey to fall off the pace, leaving Thomas all alone in first.
Thomas, who’d had a memorable meltdown two months ago at the U.S. Open, took advantage of the sudden good fortune to roll in a 40-foot birdie at 13 that put him two strokes clear of the field:
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) August 13, 2017
Thomas exulted with a familiar fist-pump as the crowd around him erupted, but there was plenty of work left to do.
Ahead, Rickie Fowler was the first to post a low clubhouse lead, his 5-under yet another reminder of what could have been, and one day might be, for the 28-year-old. Molinari bested that a few minutes later, riding a final-round 67 to a six-under finish and sending Fowler packing.
All week long, players had dreaded Quail Hollow’s final three holes, dubbed “The Green Mile,” knowing that they could destroy an entire week’s work. Watching Jason Day card a quadruple-bogey on 18 Saturday surely didn’t help any nerves. So the leaders positioned themselves to begin the first steps of the Green Mile, with Matsuyama birdieing 15 to close to within a stroke of Thomas’s eight-under.
Matsuyama almost immediately gave one stroke back, bogeying 16 after sending his approach shot nearly into the water behind the green. Thomas didn’t even hesitate to drill a six-foot putt for par. Ahead of them, Reed surrendered the opportunity to put pressure on Thomas, bogeying the 18th after a poor chip to tie Molinari in the clubhouse at -6.
On 17, Thomas showed absolutely no fear, placing a tee shot over water to within 15 feet of the hole. He birdied the putt to drop to nine under and walked to the 18th tee three shots clear of the field, rendering the Green Monster’s hold irrelevant. Kisner came to the 18th needing an eagle to even tie, and when that didn’t happen, Thomas’s celebration began.
Coming into the week, all talk centered on Thomas’s friend Jordan Spieth, who was gunning for the career Grand Slam after a victory last month at the British Open. But Spieth could never get out of second gear this week, finishing at 2-over and never seriously contending. Rory McIlroy, the tournament’s other marquee name, also suffered down the stretch, and still hasn’t won a major since 2014.
But this afternoon belonged to Thomas, who now etches his name alongside Spieth, McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day as one of golf’s major-winning next generation. Thomas closed off the year with a bravura performance, and a putt that’ll live on as long as there are replays.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.