CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Justin Thomas stalked his 36-foot bending birdie putt at the ninth green at Quail Hollow like a kitten sizing up a garden snake. At last, he squatted behind the ball and rolled his eyes upward. He trailed playing competitor Hideki Matsuyama by two strokes. He knew what he had to do, what this moment demanded of him.
The speed was perfect, and the closer it got, the more evident it became that the line was too. It dropped right in the center of the cup, and Thomas celebrated with a roundhouse counterpunch as the gallery roared with approval. As silence enveloped the green for Matsuyama's attempt at an answer, Thomas leaned toward caddie Jimmy Johnson and said, "Oh, God, I love this shit!"
At that moment, even though five players eventually would be piled up five-wide in NASCAR parlance and share the lead on the back nine, I was ready to push all my chips into the center of the table and say Thomas was going to win the 99th PGA Championship.
And Thomas believed he was going to win, too. He even told his girlfriend that she needed to change her 7 p.m. Sunday flight because he had a feeling that she would need to be at the winner's ceremony and to celebrate.
"I just had an unbelievable calmness throughout the week, throughout the day," Thomas said. "I just didn't get flustered."
An argument can be made that Thomas was born for such a moment, but let's not belabor that point. His father, Mike, 57, who taught his son the game, is the head professional at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Ky., and served on the PGA of America’s national board from 2008 to 2010. Grandfather Paul, 85, who watched the broadcast from home, was the head professional at Zanesville (Ohio) Country Club for more than a quarter-century.
But this storybook ending was no walk in the park. On a sweltering hot day, Thomas got off to an inauspicious start, going from bunker to bunker at No. 1 and was fortunate to escape with a bogey.
"Through four shots on that hole, I pretty much couldn't have drawn up a worse start to my Sunday at the PGA Championship," he said.
But he made a clutch bogey putt and stayed calm and made birdie at the second, and made the turn one shot off the lead. It seemed as if it might be Thomas' day at the 10th. First, he tugged his tee shot into the trees and begged for a break.
"I said in the air, 'Get lucky. Just spit it out for me, please.' And it spit it out, and right in the middle of the fairway," Thomas said. "I told Jimmy, 'That's why you ask.' "
With his 8-foot birdie putt clinging to the left lip, in a fit of disgust, he turned his back to the hole and said to Johnson, "How does it not go in?"
Seemingly an eternity passed. In reality, it was less than the 10 seconds under Rule 16-2 (“Ball Overhanging Hole,” http://bit.ly/2vA4SBc) that a player is allowed to wait and see whether a ball will drop, when gravity took over. Thomas shrugged his shoulders, both palms turned upside down and his expression suggested he appreciated the gift from the golf gods.
But the PGA Championship that he had dreamed of winning since boyhood still hung in the balance. Overnight leader Kevin Kisner yo-yoed up and down the leaderboard. Chris Stroud made birdies at Nos. 8 and 9. Matsuyama traded birdies and bogeys, and up ahead Francesco Molinari, who birdied four holes in a five-hole stretch on the back nine, and Patrick Reed joined the fray. Seemingly all at once his opponents made bogeys and Thomas seized the lead at 7 under as he played the par-3 13th hole. Time for his next signature shot, a chip-in from 40 feet off the green.
"That chip-in on 13 was probably the most berserk I’ve ever gone on the golf course," Thomas said. "I'm kind of interested to see how I looked for that. Yeah, it was nice."
The roars for Thomas grew in volume, and reminded him of the time when he was 7 and watching the 2000 PGA Championship duel between Tiger Woods and Bob May from the sanctity of the Valhalla clubhouse.
"[Tiger] hits the putt on camera, and before it can fall in on TV, I can just hear the roar outside. I'll never forget that," Thomas said. "I mean, that was – him and that week was the reason that I was like, OK, this is really what I want to do."
Thomas delivered one more sensational shot at the par-3 17th, smoking an adrenaline-aided 7-iron to 15 feet and rolling in the putt for a lead big enough to withstand a bogey at 18. He played the Green Mile, Quail Hollow's brutal final three holes, in even par on the weekend. Thomas closed with a 3-under 68 for a 72-hole aggregate of 8-under 276 and a two-stroke victory over Molinari (67), Reed (67) and Louis Oosthuizen (70). (Scores: http://bit.ly/2upkvKk.)
As a junior golfer, Thomas always wore pants because that's what the pros did, and he wanted to be one someday. His father has saved a golf ball from every victory along the way. There are balls for the 59 that Thomas shot this year in the first round of the Sony Open in Hawaii, which he eventually won, and for the record-tying 63 at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Saturday's third round. As soon as Thomas reached his dad, he handed him a golf ball from his latest triumph and they embraced.
“I said, ‘That's frigging unbelievable,’ ” Mike Thomas said, except he didn't say frigging.
The golf ball was No. 119 in the collection, and it soon will be on display at Harmony Landing.
“Right with the rest of them,” Mike said.
But this one is extra special. A major at 24, and a PGA no less for the son and grandson of club pros.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @adamschupak