Brian Harman (69) and Bryson DeChambeau (71) tied for third, two back.
It hasn’t been very long – about five weeks – since Mike broke the news to his son the night before the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Justin, mourning the loss of his grandfather, played the next day with a heavy heart, carding a 72 for a T13 finish. He said he knew he had to play, and that Grandpa would have wanted him to stick it out. He couldn’t focus. He felt shattered. It was, he said, the hardest round of golf he’s ever played.
“Heaven got a good one,” he later wrote on Instagram, but he had barely begun to process his grandfather’s passing when the next piece of awful news rolled in. Barely two weeks later, after Thomas missed the cut at The Genesis Invitational, Tiger Woods, a close friend and his Presidents Cup partner, was seriously injured in a single-car accident in Los Angeles.
Already glum after a tough couple of weeks, Thomas took it hard. “I kept telling everyone on my team or my family I’m ready for something good to happen this year,” he said.
Added Mike Thomas, “We’ve been through a lot, the last couple months. I think it affected Justin quite a bit. He just kind of has not been himself the last month or so.”
He was on Sunday, which was drenched in just as much sunshine as any other day of this long-awaited PLAYERS – the first in two years because of the virus – but with more butterflies.
DeChambeau topped his drive 143 yards into the lake at the par-4 fourth hole, the trajectory of the shot recalling not so much a parabola as a defective popcorn kernel.
Westwood sliced his tee shot way right, his ball splashing down in the same pond.
“Those were worse than most,” NBC’s David Feherty said.
Westwood made bogey, DeChambeau double-bogey. Any comfort they might have felt from getting their regular game back together – they also had made up the last tee time at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, won by DeChambeau – seemed to have evaporated.
Suddenly the chasers now had new life. Corey Conners (66, T7) was 6 under through 14 and two back. So were Sergio Garcia (72, T9), the 2008 champion, and Thomas, despite being stuck on the par train through his first six holes. Even Paul Casey (70, T5) was threatening.
It was anybody’s tournament, but that’s when Thomas kick-started his run with a towering 5-iron second shot to the par-5 ninth hole. It left him an easy two-putt birdie.
“The most impressive shot? There were a lot of them,” said his caddie, Jimmy Johnson. “The 5-iron on nine. He hadn’t missed a fairway or a green through that part, so I knew he had it today.”
Thomas mostly looked down or straight ahead on the long walks from greens to tees. He birdied 10, and eagled 11, his 4-iron second shot stopping some 19 feet behind the flag. He went over the green at the drivable par-4 12th hole and nearly chipped it in.
He missed a kick-in par putt on 14, which Westwood later birdied, but got his nose ahead again with another two-putt birdie at the par-5 16th hole. Westwood failed to match, and Thomas iced it with white-knuckle pars on 17 (long two-putt from the front of the green) and 18. His tee shot barely avoided trickling over the bulkhead and into the giant water hazard left of the fairway.
Thomas had done it, coming all the way back from what he called a crappy couple of months.
“I thought about him this morning,” he said of his grandfather. “I think about him every day but thought about him this morning and then I think when I saw my dad walking up 18. That was the first time during or since I teed off on one when I really thought about him.”
Laser-like long irons, a steady nerve, an inward 32 – Thomas was all in on this round. But, yeah, there’s no doubt Paul Thomas would have liked this one. Lessons and stories, all of it passed down from generation to generation, and look what it all added up to. Look what the kid did.
Good round, bub.