Thomas, who was two shots off the lead going into the final round, finished at eight-under 276 and staved off a crowd of contenders, including three who tied for second: Francesco Molinari (67), Patrick Reed (67) and the 2010 British Open champion, Louis Oosthuizen (70).
The victory was the fourth of the wraparound season for Thomas, whose highest previous finish in a major was a tie for ninth at this year’s United States Open.
Rory McIlroy, a two-time P.G.A. Championship winner, came into this tournament as the prohibitive favorite, having won two regular tour events at Quail Hollow. He finished tied for 22nd, closing with a 68, his first sub-70 round of the tournament, and then sounding an alarm that was surely heard all the way across the Atlantic.
McIlroy, the defending FedEx Cup champion and a headliner on the European Tour, said a lingering rib injury — a spasming left rhomboid muscle, to be precise — could put him out of the game indefinitely.
“You might not see my until next year, you might see me in a couple of weeks’ time,” said McIlroy, who is ranked fourth in the world. He added that he would spend the next few days assessing his options “and see where we go from there.”
McIlroy has been in a three-year major victory drought since he won his second P.G.A. Championship in 2014 at Valhalla Golf Club. At the time, McIlroy was 25, ranked No. 1 in the world and the third-youngest player, after Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, to have won four majors.
McIlroy was also the alpha male of the game’s young gym-rat pack. But in 2015, he hit a plateau and was overtaken by his fellow millennials Spieth, 24, and Jason Day, 29, both of whom have spent time at No. 1. Matsuyama, 25, who closed with a 72 to finish tied for fifth, has won six times worldwide since McIlroy’s most recent victory, at last year’s Tour Championship.
Reed, 27, a five-time tour winner who has played in two Ryder Cups, is emerging from his own plateau. He had his first top-five finish of the wraparound season last month at the Travelers Championship and followed it with a share of second on Sunday.
Rickie Fowler, 28, one of Thomas’s friends, made four consecutive birdies on the back nine in his round of 67 to finish seventh.
Another of his friends, Spieth, bonded with Thomas when they competed in junior events. After Spieth won the British Open last month for his third major title, one of the first selfies he took showed him drinking out of the claret jug alongside Thomas, who had stuck around despite missing the cut after posting an 80 in a second round.
Thomas has learned from every disappointment. In the third round of this year’s United States Open, he carded a 63 to vault into contention. But he followed that with a 75 that included three bogeys on the front nine, and watched another of his good friends, the 27-year-old Brooks Koepka, win his first major title.
He had to figure out how to conserve his energy before a late afternoon tee time and how to be patient in the wake of wobbles. On Sunday, Thomas cashed in on all that hard-earned knowledge.
On the first hole, his first two shots landed in bunkers — not the start he envisioned. But Thomas sank a nervy 14-foot bogey putt and bounced back with a birdie at the par-4 second.
He did not get frustrated when his par putt at No. 3 burned the edge of the cup, or when he just missed a birdie at the fourth, or when another birdie putt grazed the edge at the fifth.
Thomas birdied the seventh, ninth and 10th holes — the last on a putt that hung on the lip for a long moment before falling — and found himself in a five-way tie for the lead with Molinari, Matsuyama, Kevin Kisner and Chris Stroud. One by one, the other players fell away. When he holed a chip from the fringe for a birdie at No. 13, Thomas suddenly found himself ahead by two.
Spieth, who fell 10 strokes short in his bid to become the youngest player to win all four majors, started the week of this tournament by trying to set straight everyone who was ready to proclaim the next 20 years on the PGA Tour a two-man race between him and McIlroy.
“It’s not two of us,” Spieth said. “It’s really eight to 10 right now.”
When the players say that the tour’s talent stream is scuba-dive deep, they are not referring just to the under-30 set. Stroud, 35, who began the day tied for second with Matsuyama, one stroke behind the front-running Kisner, carded a 76 to finish tied for ninth. Two weeks earlier, he had been in danger of losing his tour membership privileges.
In his first 18 tournament appearances in the wraparound season, Stroud made roughly $466,000. At last week’s Barracuda Championship, his sixth start in six weeks and his 290th since joining the Tour in 2007, Stroud secured his first victory and earned $594,000 — as well as the last non-alternate spot in this field.
The difference between contending for a major title and being consigned to golf’s minor tours, Stroud said, is “one putt a day, basically.”
But little seems to separate the younger contenders — on or off the course. As Thomas left the 18th green and made the long walk toward the scoring area, he passed a receiving line that included Fowler, Spieth and the 27-year-old Bud Cauley, a teammate of Thomas’s in college at Alabama. Spieth embraced Thomas and told him, “It’s so awesome.”
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