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Justin Thomas (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Justin Thomas builds momentum for the PGA Championship by winning WGC in Memphis
A major champion is expected to excel under Sunday pressure, to pull off the right shot at the right time, and, of course, to get a little lucky at times. Justin Thomas is heading to the years first major championship next week after checking off all three boxes on Sunday in Memphis.
Thomas was bold, steady, and, at least for one hole, fortunate on his way to winning the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational at TPC Southwind. He erased a four-shot deficit at the start of the round and ended up winning by three after a five-under 65 on Sunday. Its the 13th PGA Tour title of his still-young career, making the 27-year-old Thomas the third-youngest player in the last 60 years to reach that milestone behind Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.
Hes also the first player this season to reach three victories and will take over the No. 1 spot on the Official World Golf Rankings for the first time since June 2018. Thomas is at the top of his game, and just in time too: the PGA Championship begins on Thursday at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.
Thomas knows what it feels like to lift the Wanamaker Trophy, winning his lone major championship at Quail Hollow in 2017. But, before this week, he didnt look like a player with the confidence to win another one. Thomas has been in contention twice since the PGA Tour resumed in June. Entering the final round of the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial a shot off the lead, he made only two birdies on Sunday and slipped to 10th. Again, last month at the Workday Charity Open, he had a three-shot lead over Collin Morikawa with three holes remaining. He finished bogey-par-bogey before losing in a playoff.
It was those crushing defeats, and the lessons he learned from them, that he admits helped him win this week. It means a lot, especially with how I felt that I did it, he told CBS after completing his round. In the past Ive struggled coming from behind. I learned from it at Colonial. I felt like I got really wrapped up in what was going on on the leaderboard, who was ahead of me, how many people, instead of just focusing on my own game.
(Today) I didnt look at a leaderboard until I accidentally starred at one on 13 tee. And then again at Workday, I learned from that. It sucked. Im going to be mad about that for the rest of my life. But its because of days like that is why I felt like I was able to hold on and get it done today.
Thomas trailed leader Brendon Todd by four shots at the beginning of the day; he completely made up that deficit on the front-nine, rolling in a 20-foot birdie putt at the ninth to take a share of the lead. But then he found trouble at the 12th, his approach shot taking a bad hop off the mound to the left green and nestling in under the lip of a bunker. Rather than attempt a risky, miraculous shot, Thomas made the smart play and chipped out into the rough, settling for a well-earned bogey.
Then came at the 15th hole, where Thomas got a break that may have won him the tournament. His drive on the par-four looked like it was heading well left into an area thick with trees. The ball couldve deflected off any of them and went anywhere. Instead, it went right through the trees and left him just 50 yards to the hole for his second shot. It was the type of luck that seemingly only comes to the winner of a tournament.
I got unbelievably lucky, Thomas admits. But thats the stuff that happens when you win, it really is. Somehow, that kind of calmed me down. You know, when that happened I was like this could be for us. Stuff like that doesnt happen more often than not unless you win the tournament.
The lone challenger to Thomas lead by the end of the round was another former PGA winner, the two-time defending champ Brooks Koepka. Koepka has shown throughout his career he brings his best game to the biggest tournaments; he has seven career wins on the PGA Tour, four of them majors. So, predictably with a major a few days away, Koepka was in contention for his first title since winning this same tournament last year. His run, though, ended when his tee shot at the 18th wound up in the water hazard, sending him into a four-way tie for second at 10-under, three behind Thomas.
Koepka has been dealing with a left knee injury since last fall. He underwent stem cell treatment in September, but that hasnt alleviated the problem. He admitted before the tournament this week that he still cant run and can barely ride a bike. The injury has affected his play on the course; in his last three events, he missed two cuts and finished tied for 62nd.
But a missed cut last week at the 3M Open in Minnesota allowed him to spend more time with his coach Pete Cowen, who he hadnt seen since March, and a new putting coach, Phil Kenyon. The results were immediate; he set a new career-best with a 62 on Thursday.
Thomas and Koepka are peaking at just the right time. The next seven weeks on the PGA Tour will feature the PGA Championship, the FedEx Cup playoffs, and the U.S. Open. Its the types of events both excel in. And now theyre both heading to San Francisco with a little extra bit of confidence.
But its Thomas whos going with a trophy in tow, as well as the top spot in the rankings and a new title: the favorite to win his second Wanamaker Trophy.