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Justin Thomas puts on a show to win Players Championship

Justin Thomas wins 2021 Players Championship
Players Championship winner Justin Thomas celebrates with caddie Jimmy Johnson on Sunday after holing out on the 18th hole at TPC Sawgrass' Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

American closes with sparkling 68 to surge past Lee Westwood and Bryson DeChambeau, spoiling their final-round rematch

Sunday’s final round at the Players Championship wasn’t The Rematch we were promised, but nobody wants his money back.

Instead of Bryson DeChambeau and Lee Westwood reprising their duel from last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, fans were treated to a different rematch that felt familiar: Pete Dye versus The World.

Justin Thomas won the Players with a sparkling display of golf on a sparkling Sunday afternoon in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Did he get the best of the late-great-Dye-a-bolical architect of TPC Sawgrass? No. Thomas simply survived it “better than most,” to borrow a phrase from the famous Tiger Woods putt at the 17th hole 20 years ago that NBC replayed, oh, about a thousand times during the week (scores).

Thomas played what he called one of the best rounds of his life, and he needed it to survive a wild, rollicking and, all right, diabolical final round. In short, it was a good show. And it was aided by the return of some raucous but limited-in-number galleries that punched above their weight. The crowds were louder than usual because they seemed so eager to have something finally to shout about after a one-year wait for golf to return to TPC Sawgrass, where the pandemic stopped golf a year ago, another item that NBC and Golf Channel tediously hammered home about a thousand times.

That was forgotten by Sunday afternoon when the tension began knotting over whether Westwood could finish off the 47-year-old's Cinderella story and score the biggest victory of his never-won-a-major career. One noted female golfing pinup (who will have to buy an ad to be named here) said she’d start counting the Players as a major championship if and only if Westwood were to win. That didn’t make any sense, but Westwood, a consummate ball-striker and likable European Ryder Cup warhorse, would have been a popular winner on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lee Westwood and Bryson DeChambeau at 2021 Players Championship final round
Lee Westwood (right) comes up 1 stroke short of victory for a 2nd consecutive week, though this time it wasn't to Bryson DeChambeau (left). Justin Thomas won the Players Championship, 1 week after Westwood finished 1 stroke behind DeChambeau at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The other half of the expected duel was the anticipation of seeing how far into The Age of Bryson golf has moved. The PGA Tour installed out of bounds across the lake from the 18th hole after the big-hitting DeChambeau stated his intent to target his drives over there by a hospitality and seating area in order to get an easier and less dangerous approach to the 18th green.

Coming off his API victory, DeChambeau resembled the world’s best player because he showed he is more than just monster long. He is in control of every part of his game. His iron play is very good – OK, he doesn’t have to hit much more than 9-iron most of the time – and his short game around the greens is as good as any player’s right now. His robotic, shoulder-stroke putting method isn’t elegant, but it is extremely effective.

Who was going to beat those guys in a final round?

Ultimately, it was Thomas. This Players kinda-sorta came down to one masterful stretch run: After Thomas three-putted the eighth hole for bogey, he went birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie and vaulted into a lead which he would not relinquish.

Do the easy math: four holes, 5 under par. That’s a bullet train to the top of the leaderboard just about anywhere south of the John Deere Classic. And though birdies were not impossible in this Dye-abolical wonderland, bogeys and doubles and worse were easy.

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee stuck the landing after the draining finish when he said, “It didn’t disappoint. Sublime play was interrupted, only briefly, by a shank, a top and a slice, none of them from Justin Thomas. He had it on a string. It was one of the best ball-striking rounds I’ve ever seen.”

(DeChambeau provided the top with an iron off the fourth tee that nose-dived into a hazard after 143 yards. Westwood turned into a leftist – he kept pulling shots left until he block-sliced one so badly off the 11th tee that he let go of his driver on his follow through, providing TV viewers with a satisfying clunk when it thudded to the turf. Brendon Todd, who was not in contention, pulled off the shank at the 17th that was so bad, the ball barely cleared the other island at 17, a tiny, flower-covered atoll with a lone tree that is way right of the intended target.)

brendon.todd.17th.hole.png

All Thomas did was back up his Saturday 64 with a closing 68 that featured 17 greens hit in regulation. The only one he missed was the 18th, where he snapped a tasty 3-wood shot around the corner of the lake that made even him do a double-take when he realized how dangerously close to disaster he’d come as he approached his ball. Then he mis-hit a wedge that bounced short and stopped inches from the putting surface.  Thomas still was able to lag it close for a par and, though he didn’t know it yet, a two-shot lead because Westwood three-putted the 17th for bogey.

On the 14th of March, Thomas notched his 14th PGA Tour victory, which he ranked up there with his lone major, the 2017 PGA Championship.

“It means a lot, obviously,” Thomas said. “It’s a huge championship, very special. It’s a tournament I’ve wanted to win and a tournament I truly felt like I was going to win at some point. And hopefully, multiple times. I love the golf course.”

Remember when Thomas was the No. 1-ranked player in the world? That’s the guy who showed up last weekend. Starting with that third-round 64, you had to wonder, Where he’s been?

You probably know where. Thomas is known as one of the nicest, most ego-less players on the PGA Tour, but he was knocked for a loop early this year when he missed a putt and used a homophobic slur to scold himself. Microphones picked it up, and Thomas was publicly chastised. Though he apologized and took sensitivity training, his soul was bruised.

His paternal grandfather, a key part of his young golfing success, died in February, and that, too, rocked Thomas’ world. Professional golf is a mental challenge, among other things, and suddenly Thomas felt hurt and in despair. Those emotions are not the bedrock upon which success is built. He conceded that it affected him deeply.

Bizarre is probably an understatement,” he said. “It’s been a crappy couple of months. I’ve had stuff happen I never thought I’d have happen. Losing Grandpa was terrible. And then not playing well, it took a lot [out of me] mentally.

“That’s just the way it was. I needed to suck it up and get over it. If I wanted to throw a pity party or feel sorry for myself, there was no reason to show up.”

This performance proved that Thomas is back, which is good for golf. Now there is a potential for an arms race to be No. 1 between Thomas, current No. 1 Dustin Johnson, DeChambeau, maybe Jon Rahm or an improving Jordan Spieth or a temporarily slumping Rory McIlroy, the defending Players champ last week.

Three things were worth noting:

One, DeChambeau has a complete game. Despite not being able to use driver much because of the course’s tightness, he nearly won the tournament.

Sunday, he didn’t get enough putts to drop and, after that worm-burner at the fourth hole, he hit a shot and noticed his 4-iron, his go-to, get-it-in-the-fairway club, was cracked and he couldn’t use it for the rest of the day.

“I fought really hard. It just seemed like something wasn’t going my way today,” DeChambeau said. “It was weird.

“I learned I can play on golf courses that don’t really suit me. That’s a big lesson.”

Two, Westwood has had one of the most underrated careers of any great player. He owns 44 worldwide victories, but because he’s had only two in the U.S., none a major, and a lot of close calls in which he faded late, he gets less respect than he deserves. At 47, he still can win. All that happened was that he got beat two weeks in a row by guys named DeChambeau and Thomas. There is no shame in that.

“Everybody keeps telling me how old I am,” Westwood said jokingly. “I’m 48 in a month’s time, and I’m still out here contending. It’s a joy to be involved and still be playing well. I didn’t play my best today. I ground it out and gave myself a chance, I suppose.

“You know, these are world-class fields. These are young guys that I’m giving 20, 25 years to, and I’m still contending. It’s a thrill.”

Three, TPC Sawgrass often provides some of the year’s most exciting golf, thanks to its penal nature. That makes for great viewing when it happens and provides the world’s best golfers a chance to walk a tightrope over the closing nine, similar to Augusta National, where birdies and eagles lurk alongside bogeys and doubles.

NBC golf host Dan Hicks took to calling the last three holes “The Show Holes.” That famed stretch has never gotten a nickname that stuck. “The Gauntlet” was trotted out by the network for a few years, but that one faded.

The last three holes are a good show. Maybe we should simply dub them, “Broadway.”

Thomas played one of the shots of the week to reach the 16th green in two and two-putt for the birdie that won it for him – at least, it would be the key stroke if he could survive the last two blocks, er, holes on “Broadway.” He holed a clutch 5-footer for par at 17 and got the 4 he needed at 18 after that scary-good tee ball which he curved around the lake.

After that suspenseful finish, Thomas should take a cue from real Broadway performers after the finale.

Take a bow, Mr. Thomas. Excellent show.

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