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2020 PGA: Hot start fizzles for Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas 2020 PGA Championship 3rd round
Justin Thomas, with playing competitor Jordan Spieth, squanders a 5-under start through 7 holes as he settles for a 2-under 68 and 1-under total through 54 holes of the 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.

After getting to 5 under through 7 holes at TPC Harding Park, world’s top-ranked player fades in 3rd round and wonders about a lost opportunity to win in consecutive weeks

Entering Saturday’s third round of the PGA Championship, the conversation centered not only around the leaders but about how far back might be too far to contend.

With the 36-hole cut falling at 1-over 141, a nine-shot gap existed between front-runner Haotong Li and those who qualified for the weekend on the number (scores). All of the 79 players who advanced at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco seemingly still had a chance to win. Li, 25, of China, is unproven in the U.S., though he has won twice on the European Tour. Plus, some of the best players in the world had early tee times in the third round and the potential to apply pressure.

Justin Thomas, the world’s top-ranked player, was among those who made the cut on the number and played early Saturday. However, Thomas, who made three double bogeys over the first 36 holes, seemed to be playing better than he was scoring. After all, he had made eight birdies through 36 holes but still was only 1 over. He struggled to overcome numerous miscues in the first two rounds at the municipal course along Lake Merced, resulting in an 8:40 a.m. PDT date with fellow American Jordan Spieth on the first tee.

“I knew being where I was that I needed to post a good round today to have a chance,” said Thomas, 27, whose 13 PGA Tour victories include the 2017 PGA. “I felt like if I could get 10 under this weekend, I'd have a pretty good chance.”

On Saturday, Thomas got halfway to that 10-under goal in just seven holes. He made birdies on Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7 to surge from 1 over to 4 under and into a tie for 11th, four strokes behind Li, who had yet to tee off.

But the par-3 eighth and the par-4 ninth have been among the most difficult holes this week, and Thomas lost his momentum with consecutive bogeys. He made the turn in 3-under 32 and stood 2 under for the tournament.

“Eight, that was a bummer,” Thomas said of the 218-yarder, which ranks as the third-most difficult hole of the week. “It's a really, really difficult hole, and I'm just trying to put it on the middle of the green. You can get some very squirrelly lies in that first cut, and unfortunately it just rolled through the green to where I had one of those and wasn't able to get up-and-down and save one of those.”

And that was that.

Though he made birdie on the relatively easy par-5 10th to return to 3 under for the tournament, he gave back strokes on the 16th and 18th holes, both par 4s, and signed for a 2-under 68. The result left Thomas tied for 34th place, eight strokes behind leader Dustin Johnson, and thinking about a squandered opportunity after such a hot start.

Thomas, who entered the PGA Tour’s first major championship of the season after having won last week’s WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational, lost scoring chances with his wedge game.

“It's just weird and it's frustrating, because it is a huge strength of my game and something that I rely on and lean on,” Thomas said. “I mean, the last two weeks has just been atrocious. I've worked on it. I've been hitting my numbers well on the range when we have worked on it. It's just, tweak it a little different than last week, because it was fairly calm last week.”

At 1-under 209 through 54 holes, Thomas realistically will have to look to next month’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club for any hope of a second major championship. He pointed to his inability to handle the changing conditions at TPC Harding Park as an area of potential improvement.

‘We have a lot of crosswinds and a lot of wind in general and a lot of uneven lies to where you have a lot of factors in there,” Thomas said. “But you know, as the No. 1 player in the world, I would hope that I would be able to adjust to that, and I clearly haven't and need to just work on it and hopefully find it tomorrow, but if not next week, going into the [FedEx Cup] playoffs.

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