By Chris Kudialis
Special to The Tuscaloosa News
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Shouts of “Roll Tide” surrounding the 18th green at Quail Hollow on Sunday were all too familiar for former University of Alabama star Justin Thomas.
But instead of holding the NCAA championship trophy or one of the several he won wearing Crimson and White, Thomas clutched the Wanamaker Trophy in celebration of his new greatest achievement: a major championship.
“I felt like I kind of kept everything in front of me,” Thomas said, standing just feet away from where he clinched the PGA Championship on Sunday, as a crowd of thousands gathered and cheered around the 18th green. “I just had an unbelievable calmness throughout the day.”
Thomas shot a 3-under 68 in Sunday’s final round of the PGA Championship to finish 8-under for the tournament, beating runners-up Patrick Reed, Louis Oosthuizen and Francesco Molinari by two strokes.
He began Sunday’s round three strokes off the lead after slowly inching up the leaderboard following a 2-over first-round score of 73 on Thursday. A 5-under 66 on Friday put him back on the front page of the leaderboard, and a Saturday round of 2-under 68 set him in striking distance for Sunday.
Thomas’s dominant final round contributed to one of the most dramatic back-nine finishes in recent major tournament history, with as many as five golfers tied at for the lead with five holes to play. But perhaps it was how the former Alabama star finished – with the help of caddy Jimmy Johnson – that made it so impressive.
Sunday’s round looked to be headed for disaster early after Thomas found different bunkers with his first three shots on the par-4 first hole. After blasting his fourth shot out of a green-side bunker, he sunk a 15-footer to save bogey on the first hole.
The converted bogey putt, and a subsequent birdie on the par-4 second hole, would provide Thomas the confidence he needed to settle down on the front nine, he said.
“Through three or four shots I couldn’t have drawn up a worse start to my final PGA Championship round,” he said.
The former Crimson Tide standout shook off a bogey following a missed 6-footer on the par-3 third to two-putt birdie the par-5 seventh after reaching the green in two, and also dropped a 36-footer for birdie on the par-3 ninth.
Trailing Hideki Matsuyama by two strokes at the turn, Thomas carded his fourth birdie of the tournament at the 601-yard, par-5 10th hole after getting up and down from the back of the green. That birdie moved him to 7-under and into a tie for second place.
That’s when all chaos broke loose on the leaderboard.
After birdieing the 10th with Thomas, Matsuyama – the two were paired together in the second-to-last group – bogeyed the par-4 11th and par-4 12th to fall to from 9-under to 7-under. At the same time, nearing the end of their rounds, Molanari birdied the par-4 15th – his fourth in five holes – to move to 7-under, and Reed matched that score on the same hole two groups later.
Third-round leader Kevin Kisner, playing in the final pairing, birdied the 10th just after Thomas and Matsuyama played the hole, creating a five-way tie at the top of the leaderboard.
“I had no idea it was so close,” Thomas said. “To see that was crazy.”
Thomas called what came next the most “berserk” moment of his career.
An errant four iron off the tee at the par-3 13th left Thomas in the green-side rough, 40 feet from the pin. As he pitched his second shot toward the hole, he raised his right hand toward Johnson as it rolled slowly into the cup.
An emphatic fist-pump echoed the outburst of cheers from the crowd, and gave Thomas a lead he wouldn’t relinquish.
“To have that chip come out perfectly and exactly like I saw, that was a roar I could have never imagined” Thomas said. “It’s awesome.”
Thomas parred the next three holes as Molanari and Reed ended their rounds going 1-over on their final three holes. Matsuyama, who bogeyed the par-3 13th that Thomas birdied, gained a stroke on holes 14 and 15, but fell out of contention with a bogey at the par-4 16th.
Thomas cemented the win with a perfect seven iron he called “one of the best golf shots I’ve ever hit in my life,” from 185 yards to the front of the par-3 17th green, and sunk a 15-footer to move to 9-under. Ahead by three strokes entering the final hole, he bogeyed the par-4 18th.
Celebrating with the Wanamaker Trophy nearly an hour after his round, Thomas credited Johnson, his dad Mike and grandfather, the latter two of whom were also PGA pros.
“This is a moment I’ll never forget,” he said as corks to champagne bottles popped loudly in the background. “I’m excited to have this, and it’s incredible.”