Through the first nine holes of Justin Thomas’ final round of THE PLAYERS Championship on Sunday, you would have thought the adage “it’s hard to follow a low round with another low round” was working. His first nine holes produced a nearly unblemished scorecard except for a bogey at the eighth and a birdie at the ninth. Then he broke the curse, went nuts for three holes and took the lead going birdie, eagle, birdie.
“I was in such a great frame of mind and focused all day,” Thomas said after winning. “I really felt like as soon as I started on one tee, I just was in a zone and in a focus that I felt like I could make the ball do what I wanted with it, and it felt like I could hit the putts exactly how I wanted.”
Meanwhile, overnight leader Lee Westwood and contender Bryson DeChambeau were imploding like buildings being demolished. You know, when they put explosives inside the buildings and there’s a big noise and the building just falls in a puff of dust? Well, that’s what was happening to them.
They proceeded to hit some of the worst shots by professional golfers that were ever televised. I’m fairly sure professionals hit bad shots every now and again, but we never see them because they are missing the cut or finishing 65th. Not so with DeChambeau and Westwood. We saw all of it. Every gory detail.
On the second hole, Westwood hit his second shot into the water on the right side of the hole. It’s in a low area beyond the fairway and somewhat hidden, but it’s there, and so was he. It was a bogey when he didn’t need one, almost giving DeChambeau a little advantage psychologically. But DeChambeau was no great shakes, either. He was in the rough and then a bunker. It’s just that he didn’t get any penalty shots.
Then came the fourth, that pretty little, short, slight dogleg par four with the super undulating green and water in front of it. It was a colossal calamity. That’s the only way to describe it.
Westwood hit a horrible tee shot, again right, and into the water. It was like the ball nose-dived off the tee. But that was nothing compared to DeChambeau.
It looked like he topped his tee shot, which ended up in the water.
“It wasn't really a top,” DeChambeau said afterward. “It was more like a thin ball that just had no spin on it and just knuckled.”
He was flummoxed by it. In total disbelief. (So was I, honestly.) He played his second shot, no lie, from the ladies tee. Then, instead of laying up in the fairway sensibly, he tried to play the hero shot to the green and shanked something so far right of the green that no one was sure at first if the ball was still on the golf course. Turned out he was in pine straw up on the right side of the hole, about pin high.
DeChambeau made a double and Westwood made a bogey.
DeChambeau didn’t totally disintegrate. He made birdies at seven, 12 and 13, and an eagle at the 16th, but it wasn’t enough. He admitted that he just didn’t have it on Sunday compared to earlier in the week.
“All the swings were, for the most part, really comfortable” he said. “I was playing good golf. Just things didn't pan out the way that they, I thought, should have, and I set myself behind the eight-ball quick, and I wasn't able to recover fast enough.”
Westwood bogeyed the 8th and birdied the 9th, then was a par machine until 14th where he birdied. He fought back and was in the lead, tied for the lead or one back for quite a while, but Thomas was hard to stop.
“It was one of those days for battling,” Westwood said about his round. “I made some great par saves and holed some nice putts, and I guess a bit of justice for battling all day on 18, making three there.”
The numbers, though, tell the story. Justin Thomas shot 68, 4-under par. Westwood, who was three ahead of Thomas at the start of the day, shot even par. That meant he was one back of Thomas at the end. DeChambeau was 1-under par, and that just wasn’t enough to catch either Thomas or Westwood.
Thomas said that the victory stemmed from his finish on Friday when he birdied the 16th and 18th. It gave him momentum, which he said he took into Saturday when he shot 64.
“Today it was about trying to get into position and then hang on from there,” he added.
He finished with what looked like a great tee shot on the 18th. He said he was less confident than the shot looked.
“I can't lie. I thought it was very 50/50 or if it was going to be dry or in the water,” he admitted. “The only thing I knew is that I just absolutely smoked it. Obviously the farther up you get the better chance you have, and I knew that if you're able to kind of get that little like downslope that I did or that I kind of hit on, it can kind of get rolling.”
Thomas’ closing two rounds of 64-68 for 132 tied the tournament record for the closing 36-hole score.
In winning the Players, Thomas has his 14th PGA Tour victory. He is the fourth player since 1960 to win 14 times on the PGA TOUR before turning 28, joining Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller.
Special note: Tyler McCumber, Mark McCumber’s son played in the tournament and played all four rounds.
“Obviously we always want to win, but drawing back and looking at the positives, I really liked the way my game is trending,” he said after his final round. “I've been working really hard on it. It was great to see this course in these conditions. I thought it was a great test.”
Balls in the water on 17: Total for the tournament 66. That’s the fourth highest number since 2003.