Anyone who shoots three 67s and wins from the wrong late-early side of the draw in a heavily weather-influenced PGA Championship on a proper golf course like Southern Hills, as Justin Thomas did, deserves maximum respect but, boy, did he get a bucket-load of help along the way.
JT never even came into the conversation until the back nine. One-over-par after eight, he was even further behind the leader than the seven shots by which he’d trailed at the start of the day. It looked mission impossible, yet one cockeyed optimist (sadly not me) backed him at 790 on the Betfair exchange.
You know the rest of the story: birdies at three of the next four holes gave him a glimmer, a big putt at 17, in the house at five-under. And, one by one, the four ahead of him, all non-winners on the PGA Tour never mind a Major, imploded.
Some of the golf was dire but, like a bad movie where the ‘surprise’ ending is so predictable, it still had us on the edge of our seats waiting for the next disaster. After all, the little-known Chilean Mito Pereira had started at 175/1, was playing only his second Major, and was trying to lead for the entire trap-laden afternoon. An accident waiting to happen.
Punters who didn’t need Mystic Meg to predict that five-under would be good enough for at least a playoff got on clubhouse leader Thomas at tasty prices. They awaited the car crash and were not disappointed.
Pereira’s heartbreaking double bogey at the last when only a par away from the champion’s greenside interview will be the victim everyone will remember. But what about Cameron Young’s four from just wide of the 16th green (a feeble chip and three putts, like a public-course hacker) or the four wretched shots from Matt Fitzpatrick that led to a bogey five on the driveable par-four 17th he would normally have expected to birdie?
The damage to Will Zalatoris had come earlier, a wild tee shot into the hedge at the short sixth – credit for the miracle bogey from the penalty drop though – and three more bogeys as his usually-immaculate driving deserted him. Ironically, it was his much-derided putting stroke that earned him a playoff with a clutch six-footer for par.
But 16/1 shot JT, playing the three-hole ‘mini-tournament’ in two-under-par – six-under for the final 13, fabulous figures on a course as difficult as Southern Hills – was not to be denied a famous second PGA. Who would ever have thought that Rory McIlroy’s five-under first-day score would be the 72-hole mark as well?
With his Ryder Cup experience and as a seven-time winner in Europe facing three rivals with inferior credentials, Fitzpatrick will be kicking himself for hitting so many destructive shots under the gun and questioning why he couldn’t buy a putt when it really mattered.
In the end a share of fifth place with Tommy Fleetwood and Chris Kirk was a huge anti-climax for the Yorkshireman and while Fleetwood and Kirk will be teeing it up in the Charles Schwab Challenge field at Colonial in Fort Worth this week, Fitzpatrick takes time off to reflect on what might might have been and whether such an obvious chance of a Major breakthrough will ever come his way again.
Thomas and world No.1 Scottie Scheffler, who unexpectedly had the weekend off after missing the cut in Tulsa, head the betting for the 77th edition of what we old-timers still call “the Colonial”, a Perry Maxwell design (as Southern Hills originally was) which is a claustrophobic test with narrow fairways demanding precise tee play with driver often left in the bag.
Just 7209 yards long with half the holes between 350 and 450 yards that need only short irons into small greens once the tee ball is on the right part of the fairway, it is a game of golfing chess not unlike Heritage where Jordan Spieth recently won. And as Spieth is not only a past winner here but a three-time runner-up, only once outside the top 14, and even, as a Dallas-Fort Worth native, gets to sleep in his home bed, he surely has to be in the Sunday afternoon shake-up.
Trying to complete a career Slam obviously took plenty out of him last week but not everything about finishing 34th was negative by a long way and he loves playing in the Lone Star State, as does adopted Texan Scheffler, a Dallas resident since the age of six.
It is definitely a horses-for-courses tour stop and although the last two champions, Jason Kokrak and Daniel Berger, have question marks about their current form, stronger cases can be made not only for Kirk and Spieth, winners in 2015 and 2016, but more recent Colonial conquerors Justin Rose, Kevin Kisner and Kevin Na.
From a British point of view, Rose is particularly interesting. Without a victory anywhere for over three years, his swing changes seem to be finally bedding in and his once-suspect putting stroke seemed healthy enough in a refreshing level-par 13th at the PGA, just five behind the winner.
Added to a early-season sixth at Torrey Pines and, going further back, a third at Colonial in 2020, easily his best effort of an otherwise mainly downbeat year, he could pop up at a big price. A prolific winner who at 41 is not done with winning yet.
Kirk has been going nicely all year (5th Bay Hill, 7th Honda), hence his share of fifth in Tulsa was no great surprise, nor was Kisner’s missed cut as Southern Hills would have been too long for him. This gritty putter is best judged on his Match Play second, Sony third and Sawgrass fourth.
Na, another short hitter, had to graft hard to finish 23rd at the PGA and should be seen to better effect here, where he romped home by four in 2019 after taking fourth spot behind Rose the previous year.
Others worth considering are Pebble Beach winner Tom Hoge and Valspar runner-up Davis Riley who both looked in great nick (9th and 13th) at Southern Hills and Fleetwood who had a cracking 69-67 weekend that sets him up nicely for a course that should fit his eye. Surprisingly, it will be his first visit.
Of course, there’s Thomas, Scheffler, 2020 runner-up Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Sam Burns on the cast list too but this is often a week where the marquee names play second fiddle.
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