Never has a stretch of golfing terrain been given such an inappropriate tag, for the so-called “Green Mile” delivered sufficient carnage of the red danger variety in this US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow to make it a journey of the damned.
Except for Justin Thomas, the 24-year-old American.
Rather than treating the notorious stretch of holes from the 16th to the 18th as a potential minefield to his ambitions, Thomas – in the 99th staging of the old championship – put a wise old head on his young shoulders to claim a maiden Major title with a closing round 68 for eight-under-par 208 and a two shot winning margin over the trio of Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed and Louis Oosthuizen.
For sure, there were times when Thomas rode his luck: he holed a 36-footer for birdie on the ninth; watched and watched for what seemed like an eternity but what was only seconds on the 10th as his birdie hung on the lip before dropping into the tin cup, and he chipped-in for birdie on the 13th.
Of that delayed fall on the 10th, Thomas said: “Once it got there I felt it was going to drop, and I acted like a child threw a tantrum and didn’t look so (bad) when it fell in.”
All of those deeds succeeded in giving him upward trajectory to the top of the leaderboard.
But, when it mattered most, it was his 7-iron tee-shot to the Par 3 17th – to a treacherous left-pin position hugging the lake – that secured Thomas his breakthrough win. He hit the tee-shot to 15 feet and, after assiduously studying his notebook, rolled in the birdie putt, just the fifth of the final round on that hole.
“That pin today on 17 was brutal, so to make a birdie there was beyond a bonus,” said Thomas of the putt that effectively sealed the deal for him.
In negotiating the “Green Mile” in par-birdie-bogey, he crossed the line to claim the title: that par save from a greenside bunker on the 16th, followed by the stunning birdie on the 17th, and then a carefully negotiated bogey on the 18th – after finding a fairway bunker but fully aware of what needed to be done to finish the job at hand – showed a maturity that belied his years.
As if to demonstrate the potential for trouble on that closing stretch, his playing partner Hideki Matsuyama’s tee shot on the 18th found a watery grave in the creek running down the left. And, behind them in the last group, Kevin Kisner – who had led through the first, second and third rounds only to flounder at the death – also found the creek with his approach.
No, this was Thomas’s time. And popularity among his peers was demonstrated by those gathered around the 18th green. Rickie Fowler – who’d made a charge of his own with four straight birdies from the 12th – was there, so too Jordan Spieth.
For Thomas – remarkably claiming his fourth win of the season on the PGA Tour – it was a deliverance of his rich talent. Only last month, he travelled back with his good friend Spieth on a jet sipping out of the Claret Jug. Now, in claiming the Wanamaker Trophy, the son of a club professional from Kentucky had won his own race.
As Reed observed afterwards, every time he made a move, a roar – usually acknowledging a deed of Thomas’s – came from behind him. “I’m a leaderboard watcher. I think the biggest thing was it seemed like when I got on a mini-run and made a couple birdies, after I made my first birdie, yeah, I might have closed the gap. But then if I went and made another birdie, I’d look at the board and hear another roar and Justin is making a birdie. Just kind of one of those where I got myself too far behind because of Friday and just couldn’t claw back enough. I could claw back to get a finish but not where I wanted to be,” said Reed.
He moved from world number 14 up to a career high number six. The first of many? Only time will tell. On this Sunday, it was Thomas’s time.