When Justin Thomas won the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in 2017, he was a young man on the rise.
Five years later, Thomas has done it all in the world of golf. He’s been No. 1 in the world. He’s won the Players Championship and eight other tournaments. He’s played on Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. But that Wanamaker Trophy remained the only one on his trophy case.
He found it was a lot more difficult to win a second major championship than he would’ve thought when he won his first at the age of 24. Those doubts and lingering frustrations hung over him for the past five years. For a player so talented, he seemed haunted in his quest for another one.
Thomas answered those questions on Sunday at Southern Hills with a brilliant comeback victory. When he tapped in for par on the third playoff hole to defeat Will Zalatoris, guaranteeing he would once again lift the Wanamaker, all the doubts of the last five years fell away. He was already among the game’s elite: this PGA Championship elevates him to a completely different level.
A player can ride a hot week to win one major. It takes a special talent to win multiple majors. Thomas’ peers have done it: Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, and Brooks Koepka. It was the one thing missing from Thomas’ resume that they had over him, but no longer.
His chance seemed to slip away on Saturday when he shot a 74 to fall seven shots behind entering the final round. No one had come back from such a deficit in a major championship in more than 20 years. Only John Mahaffey in 1978 had ever done it at the PGA. But as the leaders—Mito Pereira, Zalatoris, and Cameron Young, each of them without a PGA Tour title—began to fall away, Thomas quietly rose up the leaderboard. He holed a 60-foot birdie putt on the 11th. He birdied the 17th to get to five-under. His approach shot on the 18th was a missile right on the flagstick. “Come on,” Thomas yelled as the ball was in the air. He missed the putt, but suddenly he was back in it.
Pereira’s collapse on the 72nd hole gave him the opportunity, and he seized it in the playoff, making birdies on the first two holes to take the lead over Zalatoris. A simple two-putt par on the 18th green was enough. The drought, at long last, was over.
The PGA Championship has a special meaning for Thomas. He’s grown up in the world of the PGA of America and the 28,000 professionals around the country that form the backbone of the sport. His father, Mike, was a PGA professional at Harmony Landing Country Club in Kentucky. His grandfather, Paul, was a PGA professional who once qualified for the U.S. Open.
Justin Thomas now in elite company with a second major title
They handed down that legacy to Thomas, and he’s making the most of it. Thomas is now the sixth player with at least 15 wins and two majors before the age of 30, joining some heady company: Tiger, Jack, Rory, Watson, and Miller.
The emotions of finally ending the drought came out when Thomas tried to describe it afterward.
“It’s just so hard to win,” he said, choking up. “It’s easy to start letting some doubt creep in and just kind of be like, what’s going to happen, when’s it going to happen.”
“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.”
Thomas, still 29, will have plenty of more special moments in his career. his second major ensures that. But he came to appreciate that in golf, nothing ever comes easy.
He now has bragging rights on his friends, courtesy of the 27-pound trophy that’s going home with him. He’s now not only one of the best of this generation but of the entire history of the game. He was beginning to have doubts it would happen, but as it turned out, it was just a matter of time before he got another one.