Where there is drama, there is always grief.
Justin Thomas won the PGA Championship in a three-hole playoff, capping off an outstanding eight-hole comeback on Sunday. He defeated Will Zalatoris, whose streak of wins but no trophies continues at major golf clubs.
Behind them was Mito Pereira, a young Chilean who led the tournament at hole 71 before crashing at hole 18. It wasn’t exactly Jean van de Velde’s territory at the Open, but Pereira kept the tournament on his jersey and watched him walk away.
Playing only his second major, and his first at the weekend, Pereira had to play two holes and lead by one stroke at -6. Thomas, seven strokes behind before the start of the day, bided his time with a -5 lead at the club. Zalatoris, who has finished in the top 10 five times in his last eight tournaments, is one hole ahead of Pereira at -5.
Pereira and Zalatoris, along with teammates Matthew Fitzpatrick and Cameron Young, devastated the field by playing above par all day. If any of them had been able to convert early shots or keep early shots correct, they would have walked away with the Wanamaker Trophy. But when everyone is fighting, everyone stays on the hunt.
Thomas could only watch, regretting the few missed birds, as the last three athletes attacked. Fitzpatrick ejected first, directing his run on 17 into a bunker on the green. Unable to rise and fall to par, he fell to -3 and actually left the hunt.
Up front, Zalatoris struggled with a wicked 18th but still managed to land an eight-foot doubles kick to tie Thomas at -5, proving to be one of the most important strikes of the entire tournament.
On the 17th, Pereira faced the hit of his life, a 12-foot ball that would have given him a two-stroke lead over the 18th. But the shot stopped half a turn from the fall, and Pereira went to the 18th tee with that one-hit lead.
And then everything went wrong for him. Pereira’s final throw of the day was his worst shot of the week, a clumsy shot that ended up rolling into the creek that ran along the 18th fairway.
With a free kick, Pereira had two 190 yards to win and three to make the playoffs with Thomas and Zalatoris. But his approach went far to the left of the pin, his chip went right past the pin and bounced off the green, and his attempt to hit from the edge failed. It was a heartbreaking end to a spectacular tournament for a young player who has had more talent than fame over the past few years.
Only Zalatoris and Thomas remained to fight in the first three-hole PGA Championship playoff since 2011. On par 5 13, Zalatoris hit the deck first and nearly hit an eagle putt. The third Thomas landed six feet from the pin and both moved away from the bird hole.
On a controlled 17th, Thomas took charge, reaching the green with a tee shot that narrowly missed the bunker collar on the green. Zalatoris hit the edge, another bunker between him and the pin, and he flew about 12 feet from the flag. Zalatoris missed the birdie, but Thomas, whose eagle attempt ended three feet from the goblet, did not.
This left Thomas in the lead for the first time since Friday morning, with a one-shot lead back to that lethal 18th place. Thomas’ tee shot veered into the creek that swept Pereira, but stayed on the fairway. Meanwhile, Zalatoris took a conservative approach and remained dry.
As they approached, Zalatoris found himself on the edge of the lawn, clinging to the edge of the forest. Thomas took aim at the flagstaff, landing a nine-iron high arc that left him with an easy two-punch to take a one-punch victory and his second major.
The PGA Championship bills itself as the ultimate golf course, and there is merit in that; 96 of the top 100 players in the game were in the Southern Hills. But past performance was no guarantee of PGA success, as all three current champions of other major tournaments quickly realized. Masters champion Scotty Sheffler missed, abruptly breaking off what had been a remarkable climb. Other betting favorites John Rahm, the reigning US Open champion, and Collin Morikawa, the reigning Open champion, qualified but were not involved in the final result.
Own defending PGA champion Phil Mickelson was one of the first news of the week due to his absence. Still in self-imposed exile for his comments praising Saudi Arabia’s new golf regime and criticizing the PGA Tour, Mickelson withdrew from the tournament the Friday night before the tournament. His absence hung over the tournament only until the first tee shots were made.
One of those who had some success in the first few hours of Thursday: Tiger Woods, whose strong early play put him in the lead. But Woods, still recovering from injuries sustained in a February 2021 car crash, has cooled off as the aftermath of another hard shot to his surgically repaired knee slowed him down. By Saturday, Woods had barely made it to the +12 round and decided to withdraw from the tournament so as not to risk further suffering and injury.
The first two days, Woods played in a superstar group with Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, but only one of the three came out that first day. McIlroy, who has historically struggled on Thursdays, instead lost 65 in the first round to claim a one-stroke lead, the first round he had led in a major since his last big win, the 2014 PGA Championship. Meanwhile, Spit, aiming for a career Grand Slam, reeled from the jump and never got close to a rivalry.
On Friday there was a strong wind that destroyed the morning wave of players, with the exception of Thomas. Looking to follow up on his 2017 PGA win, his only major, Thomas took the club lead with a second straight 67. But Zalatoris and Pereira, playing in the afternoon, caught up and passed Thomas to finish Friday at -9 and -8. respectively.
The southern hills promised wind from all four directions and weather from all four seasons, and Saturday came with a chill that chilled most of the field. Pereira remained consistent, taking the lead from -9 while Zalatoris struggled with his stick and fell back to -6. Two other players short of even a first PGA Tour win, Fitzpatrick and Young, made it to the final pairs with twins of 67. Meanwhile, Thomas appeared to be out of the tournament, seven strokes behind leader Pereira.
Then on Sunday it got cooler but clearer and any of the players had the opportunity to jump out in front of the field. No one did, and this led to drama with the latest holes.
Jay Busby is a Sportzshala Sports journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]