TULSA, Okla. — All week, the PGA Championship was defined by what it lacked.
Phil Mickelson was a mysterious no-show, skipping his historic title defense as part of an extended absence from the public eye.
Tiger Woods, who won the last major held at Southern Hills — the 2007 PGA — waged a valiant fight to make the weekend but shot 79 on Saturday and withdrew shortly thereafter.
Golf’s biggest names struggled to fill the void. Masters champ and world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler missed the cut. Jordan Spieth, chasing the career Grand Slam, was never a factor. Every top-ranked golfer in the field backed up on Saturday, leaving a list of contenders with nary a PGA Tour victory between them, never mind a major championship. The 100th-ranked golfer in the world, Mito Pereira, led by three heading to Sunday. The 2022 PGA was destined for an obscure winner.
Until it wasn’t.
Justin Thomas came from seven shots back at Southern Hills on Sunday, got some help from a late, tragic double bogey from Pereira and then fended off Will Zalatoris in a three-hole aggregate playoff to win his second career major championship in chaotic, dramatic, impressive fashion.
So how did he do it?
Thomas won the PGA Championship on Thursday and Friday, when he fought through the tougher half of the draw to shoot 67-67 and dive into contention. His creativity was on full display in the wind and rain as he plotted his way around a formidable golf course with an impressive array of shotmaking. He has more options in the bag now than he did in 2017; he can work the ball both ways on command, flight it high and low, ride the wind or hold it off. On tough days, we’ve learned to look for Thomas’ name. Some of the inspiration for his newfound wizardry comes from close friend Tiger Woods. The credit, of course, goes to Thomas himself.
Thomas also won the PGA on Saturday night, after a third-round four-over 74 seemed certain to doom his chances. His caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, took him to the range for a stirring pep talk.
“He was just like, dude, you’ve got to be stop being so hard on yourself. You’re in contention every single week we’re playing,” Thomas said. Thomas had been on edge all week, frustrated with his swing, unsatisfied with how he felt over the ball. But then, as the wind died and the sun set and the people left, Mackay’s words found their mark.
“I left here in an awesome frame of mind. I think I was the last player here — it was like this out right now, it was so peaceful,” Thomas said, thinking back on the pivotal moment some 24 hours later. “It was almost kind of eerie how beautiful it was outside, and there’s not very many times after shooting four over on Saturday of a major I left in as good a frame of mind.”
Thomas won the PGA when he checked the leaderboard later that night and realized the lack of experience ahead of him. He knew they were terrific golfers — Pereira and Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris and Young and Ancer and more — but he also knew they’d never won majors and, in fact, had just one Tour title among them. Thomas knows how tough it was to win his lone major, and he knows well how tough it’s been to snag another. He knew that as nervous as he’d be feeling, they’d be feeling that and more.
Thomas won the PGA at No. 6 on Sunday, when he hit a cold shank that traveled just 108 yards on a 218-yard hole. It was a jarring shot in a giant moment for one of the game’s great irons players. So jarring, in fact, that Thomas had no choice but to laugh it off, push past it and escape with bogey.
“I just cold-shanked it. I don’t really know how else to say it,” he said post-round. “It was the best bogey I’ve ever made in my life, that’s for sure.”
Thomas won the PGA on Sunday afternoon when he just refused to give up. He didn’t look at leaderboards and he didn’t make bogeys, logging four birdies in his final 10 holes to post a 72-hole total of five under par. As pressure mounted and Southern Hills exacted its revenge, Thomas’ name rose quickly up the leaderboard.
Thomas won the PGA when Pereira’s tee shot found the water off the 18th tee. To win a major championship, you need some help from your competition. Thomas got more of that than most. Pereira had held onto an unsteady lead all day, but still — he was on the brink of getting it in the house before a bad swing and an unfortunate bounce sent his ball to the bottom of the creek. Thomas was on the range at that point, getting updates from CBS’ Colt Knost, awaiting a potential playoff. A few minutes later he heard the news that not only had Pereira found the drink, he’d stumbled to a heartbreaking double bogey to finish four under par.
And so Thomas headed to the 13th tee to stare down Will Zalatoris in a three-hole playoff. That’s where he won the PGA once and for all, making birdie on two of the first three extra holes to cement his second career major championship.
It was hard to think of a more deserving winner, both given Thomas’ accomplishments over the last half-decade and given his efforts all week. He was unquestionably the best golfer in the field; what more can you ask for?
Thomas was a grateful, emotional winner as well. He had hugs for everyone — for Bones, for his fiancee Jill, for his parents, even one for Knost. The distance since the first win has served as a reminder of just how difficult it is to lift these trophies. By the time Thomas appeared in front of the media, some 30 minutes after the final putt dropped, he was still brimming with emotion.
“I just think it’s just so hard to win,” he said. “Like, I legitimately think it’s harder to win now than it was when I first came out on Tour just because of the depth of the Tour.”
Golf plays tricks on the mind, even for its best players. Perhaps for its best players most of all.
“I think it’s easy to start letting some doubt creep in,” he said. “Like, all right, what’s going to happen, when is it going to happen. Is it going to happen?
Thomas’ win was the first with Bones on the bag. It was his first win as an engaged man. He was emotional because he was thankful. He was keen on soaking it in.
“I just was walking up 18 in the playoff, and I knew it wasn’t over, but I looked up and I wanted to take it in because you don’t know when and if it’s going to happen again, and it’s such an unbelievable, cool feeling that you just want to enjoy it,” he said.
As he wrapped up his comments, he and Jill walked hand in hand out of the interview area, up the stairs, silhouetted against the setting sun. It was the same Tulsa sunset in which he’d found serenity the night before. So much had changed in the meantime.
It would also be impossible to come up with a more symbolic winner. In a week centered around Tiger and Phil, Tiger Woods’ best friend on Tour won — with Phil Mickelson’s former caddie on the bag?
In the end, the tournament without an identity sure found a good one.