Tour Confidential: Justin Thomas’ PGA comeback, Mito’s mishit, Tiger’s status
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss Justin Thomas’ PGA Championship win, Mito Pereira’s shocking swing and Tiger Woods 54-hole week.
Justin Thomas came from seven strokes back to win the PGA Championship on Sunday, ultimately beating Will Zalatoris in a three-hole playoff. The win was Thomas’s second major title and 15th PGA Tour victory. What most fueled his charge?
Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): It sounds like his caddie Jim Mackay did. JT said in his presser that he wouldn’t be there, standing next to the Wanamaker Trophy, if it wasn’t for a kick in the pants that Bones gave him on the range Saturday night. He said he felt at peace leaving the property, despite shooting 74 Saturday, which says a lot.
Jessica Marksbury, senior editor (@jess_marksbury): As I was looking over the leaderboard on Saturday night, it struck me that Justin Thomas was one of only four other major winners — the only “experienced” guys on the leaderboard — who had a semi-realistic chance of making a run. (Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Stewart Cink were the others.) But seven shots seemed like an insurmountable tally! That’s the beauty of this sport, though. Anything can happen, and JT has been around long enough to know that if he kept grinding, he’d have a chance. Then, he made some clutch plays at exactly the right time.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): I’m not sure I would call it a charge in the classic sense. Thomas played a very solid round, hitting a number of clutch shots down the stretch. But what he didn’t do was beat himself, which some of the less experienced players did over those closing holes.
Zephyr Melton, assistant editor (@zephyrmelton): Sens put it perfectly. Yes, JT played well, but what he did best was avoid beating himself. That’s all he needed on a wild Sunday in Tulsa.
James Colgan, assistant editor (@jamescolgan26): I’d argue Mito Pereira fueled his charge, with an assist from Will Zalatoris. The tournament crumbled ahead of JT, and as Josh said, Thomas deserves credit for stepping through the opening.
Mito Pereira, the leader for much of the final round, had his own destiny in his hands when he stepped onto the 18th tee with a one-shot advantage. But then came a shocking swing that led to his ball flying hard right into a creek; Pereira’s resulting double bogey dropped him into a tie for third. “I don’t know what happened,” Pereira said of the swing. How do you explain it?
Zak: It’s hard to explain. I can’t help but think he hit a pretty great shot, that was both too good and also not good enough. A bounding drive that could have gotten caught up in the rough, but didn’t. The kinda bad luck that comes from an imperfect shot that more experienced players might not have made.
Marksbury: Hindsight is always 20/20 on a shot like that. It’s easy to question why he didn’t go with a different club or a more conservative line. But he was confident in the shot he envisioned and it just didn’t work out. Super unfortunate, but something anyone who’s ever played the game can relate to.
Sens: Not trying to be glib here, but I think we can chalk it up to the withering pressure of trying to win. One last call to find the fairway, something he did so well all week. Pereira wasn’t the first to deliver a tight swing in those circumstances . . . and he won’t be the last.
Melton: Pressure is a funny thing, and it affects everyone differently. He felt the pressure, and the result was a bad swing at the worst time.
Colgan: I’m not sure Mito’s decision-making on the 18th tee with a one-shot lead is explainable. It was a no-brainer 3-wood, and he pulled driver instead. He paid for the decision with the tournament. I loved the way he played all week, but 18 was indefensible.
Outside of Sunday’s proceedings, the week’s biggest news came Saturday, when Tiger Woods withdrew after his third round. Now 15 months since his car crash, the 15-time major winner rallied to make the cut with a one-under 69 on Friday, only to shoot a 79 the next day, and call it a tournament soon after. What’s your Tiger takeaway from the week?
Zak: Thoroughly impressed he made the cut, but not surprised that it ended poorly. The Masters was just five weeks ago, and the same thing happened. I’d guess he doesn’t play at Brookline, and starts focusing on St. Andrews.
Marksbury: I’m still very surprised he elected to tee it up at all this week. It certainly didn’t seem like a course that would jibe with his current physical wheelhouse, despite his triumph in 2007. But, man, that was a lifetime ago! St. Andrews seems like a much friendlier and realistic place for us to see him next.
Sens: That the mind is as willing as ever but the body, for good reason, isn’t.
Melton: His body just isn’t ready for four rounds of high-level golf. We sort of knew this after the Masters (although there he was able to put four rounds together), and this week solidified that fact.
Colgan: Agreed, Jess! I thought there was no chance we’d see Tiger again until St. Andrews. I think this week was an important one in teaching Tiger about his limitations. For the first time in his life, playing in some events is simply a non-starter. He’ll get better at peaking when he needs to, which should only help him down the line.
Rory McIlroy conquered his major championship first-round demons with a 65, only to go 71-74-68 after that to finish 8th. He has now gone eight years without a major championship — and yet, he seems to always be in the conversation. We’ve debated this topic before, but this week it seems even more apropos to ponder: What is holding him back at golf’s biggest events?
Zak: I’m not going to act like I know. It’s anyone’s guess, including Rory’s. I think he can do it and I think he will do it soon enough. But for some reason when that train starts wobbling on the tracks, he doesn’t have the means to settle it down.
Marksbury: As confounding as it is for us to ponder, I can only imagine what it’s like for McIlroy himself. But I agree with Sean. Rory will win another major, and I think it will be soon! He’s clearly physically able. Maybe it will just take another Sunday-at-Augusta-esque charge from behind to really open the floodgates again.
Sens: No doubt, Jess. It’s got to be in his head at this point. Invariably, it’s the short approaches and in. He gets on a heater, cuts the course down to size off the tee, and then either the wedges or the putter betray him. Today, it was the putter.
Melton: No clue, but the disappointing finishes are getting to him. After the round, the typically media-friendly Rory left as soon as he signed his card. It’s not like him to spurn the media, so you know this week weighed on him.
Colgan: I think Sean put it perfectly. The word here is composure. Rory doesn’t have a lot of it these days. That’s why his game comes and goes in spurts. I do think he puts it together soon, but he needs a catalyst mentally. Hopefully Southern Hills provides that.
Newly restored Southern Hills, which played host to the PGA on short notice after Trump Bedminster was stripped of the privilege, was generally well received by the players, and wild weather patterns meant we got see in a variety of conditions. What was your read on the course? Worthy major venue?
Zak: Southern Hills should host a PGA Championship once a decade, every decade. And maybe it should host a Ryder Cup, too. I’ve written about how the PGA Championship should lean in to Middle America, mostly for the fans and variety. But they should definitely lean in to Southern Hills from a quality-of-test basis. Not a single hole was too easy. Not a single hole was too hard. Each of them was an individual test, where birdie and double bogey was possible. It’s lovely.
Marksbury: I always enjoy watching the pros take on some good risk/reward opportunities, and the closing holes certainly produced some real drama this week. Count me among the fans!
Sens: It’s a remarkable course. And as someone said during the event, it did what great courses do: It punished mediocrity. A very tough test but also fair. And so much more fun to watch than the event would have been at Trump Bedminister.
Melton: Love Southern Hills. It’s a proper test of golf, and it seems to always identify a deserving champion. I can’t wait for the next event out here.
Colgan: The playoff was all you needed to watch to know it was brilliant. Risk/reward par-5; drivable par-4; monster two-shot par-4. Southern Hills had a piece of everything, and (most importantly) it was an actual TEST for the pros! We need MORE of that, not less. I can’t believe we saw people dog on the place throughout the weekend.
Big names — Scottie Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay and Dustin Johnson — missed the cut. Bubba Watson shot a Friday 63. The beers at Southern Hills were $18. The defending champion stayed home. There were a lot of storylines this week. What was your favorite under-the-radar one?
Zak: World No. 1 looking different. Scottie Scheffler’s heater might not be over with, but it took a hit this week when he flamed out and missed the cut. There was a bit of a viral video that showed him slamming clubs into his bag, and plenty of frustration caught on the broadcast. It’s been all smiles and laughter during this epic run, but we weren’t sure what it was going to look like when things turned. I get the sense he’ll battle back in a big way, but it was interesting to see him run hot.
Marksbury: Even though he came up short in the end, I’ve really enjoyed seeing Will Zalatoris in the mix so often over the last two years. Did you hear the crowd chanting for him during the playoff? He has such a nice aura about him, and all these near-misses are certainly building his name-recognition in a big way. You can’t help but think he’ll win a big one soon — and it will be fun to watch him bask in the much-deserved adulation.
Sens: Stewart Cink wasn’t part of many pre-tournament conversations but he became an intriguing story heading into Sunday. With Phil not around, there was Cink, with a chance to make it back-to-back for the graybeards.
Melton: Zalatoris’ much-maligned putting stroke deserves a little love. Although he came up a single shot short, he made plenty of clutch putts this week — including a downhill tester to save par at 18 in regulation. There are still moments when the flatstick looks shaky, but this week he (again) proved what a threat he is when he gets it rolling.
Colgan: Eighteen dollars for a Michelob Ultra? In this economy?!?!? Nothing else even enters the conversation.