The PGA’s final round will be epic for 1 player more than anyone else 

justin thomas pga championship

Justin Thomas plays his approach shot into the 18th hole at Valhalla Golf Club Saturday.

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — They’re all playing for the same prize out here, but different players have different pressures this week. Justin Thomas’s unique pressure began in November 2017, when the PGA Championship (of which he was the reigning champion) announced it would return to Valhalla Golf Club, just 20 miles from where he grew up.

We don’t know how many times Thomas has thought about this specific tournament or even visualized himself winning it, but you can comfortably assume it’s more than any other in the field, probably by a lot. What he feels tomorrow — when he starts five back of the leaders in an all-out sprint to 20 under — will be different than the rest of the field, too.

Thomas lives in Florida but there’s a reason he’s announced as a Louisvillian every time he tees it up on the PGA Tour. Louisville claims him. A week ago, he was officially deemed a “Hometown Hero” by the mayor, who unveiled a massive banner bearing an image of Thomas across one of the local buildings. Thomas had gawked at those banners during his youth, on trips to and from school. Now that one was made for him, he broke down in tears during his acceptance speech. The man has earned plenty of awards, and given plenty of speeches. This one hit him harder than any other. 

“Louisville obviously means a lot to me, but I think it actually means more to me than I even thought,” he said this week. The response to his return has been predictably strong. 

Louisville sits smack-dab between Indiana and Kentucky, between the American Midwest and the American South, which makes it a hotbed for sporting culture, distant from the high-profile athletes and franchises of the country’s coasts. For golf, this is an oft-forgotten part of the country, which is precisely why 200,000 spectators (or more) are expected to show up this week. 

Thomas felt the impending texts, calls and requests so much he changed his phone number last week. He doesn’t regret it. He also preemptively surveyed Keegan Bradley, who hails from the northeast, what it was like playing in front of rabid crowds at the 2022 U.S. Open outside Boston. 

“He said he just looked around, he just looked everywhere, he took it in, embraced the support,” Thomas said. “Which I feel like is kind of opposite of what you hear from some people, like you need to block it out. But I think I said it maybe even yesterday — I feel like I’ve never had this many people actually rooting for me, so I’m going to enjoy it for all it’s worth, because it’s been fun.”

Surprise! Being the hometown favorite leads to incredible support. But there’s a flip-side to all that emotion and attention. It builds pressure, too. The kind no one else in the field is dealing with. And that’s all these major championships are, at some level: pressure cookers. Each day amplified from the last. Especially when you’re doing it at home. 

Ask Rory McIlroy, the Ulsterman brought to tears after narrowly missing the cut at the 2019 Open in his homeland, Northern Ireland. Ask Tommy Fleetwood, who held the first round lead at the Open last summer, 20 miles from where he grew up in northwest England, only to slump away and finish T10. Ask Bob MacIntyre, the one man in the field who has talked about home more than Thomas this week. 

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Bobby Mac, the lad from Oban, Scotland, has been living in Orlando this year, and is very homesick. He flew his mom in to Louisville to help cook and clean. He recently made a 3-week trip home and barely touched his golf clubs. MacIntyre has brought up the emotions of home in nearly every press conference this week. Perhaps because home has been so good to his golf. The power of home is a feeling these jet-setting Tour stars don’t often get. 

Last summer MacIntyre manifested one of the greatest weeks of his entire life at the Scottish Open, shooting a final-round 64 in the most classically Scottish dry and windy conditions. He vaulted into the clubhouse lead with only Rory McIlroy left to beat. 

Then … “the unthinkable happened,” MacIntyre said Saturday. “One of the best golfers on the planet done what he done.”

McIlroy birdied the last two holes that day and stole it from him, bringing MacIntyre to the only natural place: tears. A positive-then-negative memory seared into his brain.

“There’s not many places that Rory McIlroy goes and they’re not wanting him to win,” he said. “And the Scottish Open was probably one of them. It’s just cool to have so many people on your side wanting you to do well. But sometimes it can be hard if it’s not going your way because you almost feel like you’re letting them down.”

It all feels good, so long as the golf is good. And Thomas’s golf has been mostly great this week. Scores of 69-67-67 would be perfect in any other major championship on any other course, in any other type of condition. But it’s only good enough for T10 at this one. Thomas’s first competitive round in his home state in years would have felt even better were he not “playing with one of the easiest 9-unders you’ve ever seen.”

That was Xander Schauffele, whom Thomas has now been chasing for three days. After Day 1, he was seven back. After Day 2, six back. After three days, he’s now five back. Unfortunately for Thomas, there is only one more.

“I’m very, very excited for tomorrow,” he said. “It should be a lot of fun. But I’m pretty bummed that the week is almost over.”

Unless something special happens. 

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.

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