A dramatic final day’s play at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills resulted in Justin Thomas winning his second Wanamaker Trophy after a play-off with fellow American Will Zalatoris
As a past winner of the PGA Championship, you know how hard it is to win these things, but starting out on Sunday, seven shots back, and with six players in front of you, how much of a chance did think you had of lifting the trophy?
When I looked at the leaderboard on Saturday night I could see that there were a lot of good players ahead of me, but I also knew that none of them had won a major before, and some hadn’t won a PGA Tour event, so I knew there would be some nerves out there, just as I felt them back in 2017.
I hadn’t won in a while, and it had been five years since my PGA win, so I while I wasn’t feeling out of it, I knew that it would take a pretty good round from me and for others to fall back for me to have any kind of chance. To be honest, I only really thought I had a chance to win once I found out I was in a play-off. Up until that point my fate was kind of in the hands of others. I posted a score, but I didn’t think it would be a winning one. I thought six or seven under was doable, so when I missed that birdie putt on 18 in regulation I felt like it could have been an important one.
So what was your gameplan going out there on Sunday? Were you trying to be aggressive or avoid making mistakes?
I was trying not to play the field or think about what others were doing. I just went about my business, trying to execute each shot as well as I could, and then wherever it ended up, I just gave my club to Bones [his caddie, Jim McKay] and then moved on to the next shot and so on. Bones did an unbelievable job of keeping me in the moment and keeping me patient. Southern Hills is a very hard golf course, so you had to be patient, and I just hung in there, tried to stay positive and got the job done.
Did you feel that chasing from behind gave you the opportunity to play with a bit more freedom than the leaders?
I didn’t look at the leaderboards on Sunday, so I didn’t know where I necessarily was. When I made the birdie on 12, it felt like there was a different energy from the crowd and I got a sense that I might have been in the mix, but I didn’t know where I was at, but I’m in striking distance.
You were the only player in the last seven groups who broke par. How much of that would you attribute to the difficulty of the conditions and pins and frankly, to the nerves, given so much lack of major experience out there?
I would say the golf course and the wind probably 80 per cent, and I would say the difficulty of winning a golf tournament and a major, 20 per cent, if I had to put a number on it. I mean, it was tough. The wind kept switching and it was easy to second guess yourself. A lot of potential birdie holes could turn into bogey holes and worse if you got things slightly wrong, and that’s kind of what we saw happen out there. Southern Hills is a great major championship venue, and it tests all facets of your game.
When do you think your experience of having ‘been there and got the t-shirt’ came into play during the final round?
It definitely came into play during those last three or four holes. I played the back nine beautifully. The holes I didn’t make birdie or had birdie putts I had really good looks, and I hit great putts that just didn’t go in. And the holes I missed the green I was able to salvage a par, which is what you have to do to win a major. I kept telling myself I’ve been here before. Although it’s been five years, it was somewhere down in there, and that really helped.
Is it possible to feel a bit of sympathy for Mito Pereira, with the wheels coming off like that on 18?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in ideal circumstances you want to win a golf tournament, you don’t want someone to lose it, but that’s golf. There have been many times in my career when I feel like I’ve let a tournament get away. It’s brutal. It’s not fun. But at the same time, I’m sure Mito will be able to look back at it later and reflect, he’ll be able to learn from it and be better from it. There’s no reason for him to hang his head – he played unbelievable golf this week.
The weather changed so much over the course of the four rounds. How differently did it play from day-to-day and what factor did the weather play in the result?
I don’t think I’ve ever played in a major – outside of the Open Championship, of course – where we’ve had such a severe change in conditions during the course of the tournament. When I played on Friday morning, the wind was howling out of the south, and then on Saturday it was cold and blowing out of the north. That doesn’t happen often, let alone in a major championship and at a place like this. It just brought out another side of everybody. It challenged us, but I was also excited, because although I would have loved to have seen this place in a north wind, I hadn’t before. But at the same time, I’m sure a lot of guys hadn’t either. It probably helped that I hadn’t been here that often because it was a lot easier to throw the past two rounds of memory out and just almost take each hole from scratch for what it was. It was very tough, but everybody had to deal with the same kind of stuff.
Given that your father and your grandfather were both PGA Professionals, can talk about how special it is to win the PGA of America’s Major Championship?
Yeah, it’s very, very special. I’m pleased. At this point any of them is great; I don’t care which one it is. As Tom Brady always says, your favourite Super Bowl is your next one, and that’s what my favourite major is. And at this moment, it’s definitely the PGA. I know somewhere up there, grandpa was watching and pulling for me. It’s very, very cool to be able to share this victory with my family.
In what ways are you a better golfer now than when you won the PGA back in 2017?
Five years is a long time, especially at this stage of my life, so I’ve definitely matured quite a bit a player and as a person. I would like to think that everything has just gotten a little better, although I couldn’t put my finger on anything specific element of my game, but it those 1% increments that can make the difference. There is nothing that is monumentally better than it was five years ago, but it’s all improved just a little bit and it all came together this week. It feels like it’s a lot harder to win on tour than it did five years ago, as the strength in depth feels much deeper than it did when i first started out. My world ranking had fallen without me thinking that I was playing any worse, and that just shows how quickly you can drop when you’re not winning.