PGA Championship 2022: Justin Thomas had 35 minutes between the end of his round and a new life in the playoff. Here’s how he spent it | Golf News and Tour Information
TULSA – At 5:17 p.m., Justin Thomas attempted a birdie putt on the 18th hole of the PGA Championship at Southern Hills. If he succeeded, he would have tied Mito Pereira for the lead at six under. He walked past the hole – uncomfortably past – and about a minute later made his par. As he walked away, he took a long look at the massive leaderboard overlooking the green. What he saw didn’t look too promising; Pereira had finished the 16th hole still a step ahead, and Will Zalatoris was also within range. He tilted his head back, closed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair before pulling it down – the picture of regret.
He looked distraught as he climbed the long hill to the clubhouse, crossed the road and down the temporary stairs to the scoring tent, but he kept his cool, knowing the cameras were on him. All the time. Reporters, TV crews and security guards watched him sign his time card and watched the small television. Zalatoris birdied on the 17th to level Thomas at five under, but more pressing Mito Pereira hit a commanding drive that faded perfectly to the green on the par-4 17th. He didn’t quite reach the putting surface, but as Thomas looked on, he looked like he had a great birdie shot that would likely win the tournament.
Mark Steinberg, Thomas’ agent, stood on the hill outside the scoring tent. “Bones,” he called, and Thomas’ caddy, Jim Mackay, stepped forward as Steinberg offered a series of whispered instructions. Stewart Cink, Thomas’ playing partner, came up to offer a punch, then patted him on the back.
At that point, Thomas walked out with his team, followed by PGA digital cameras. “I hope for the best,” he told himself, as much to himself as to everyone else. He headed to a building near the candidate interview area, another temporary structure called “Caddie + Player Support Services”. The cameras tried to follow, but Steinberg planted himself between them and the door, and everything he said was effective – they stayed outside, filming through the window.
Mike Thomas, Thomas’ father and swing coach, came to the door, received a set of instructions, and was out in a flash, bounding up the stairs and heading back to the clubhouse. In the hall of the players’ locker room, he found Thomas’ fiancee, Jillian Wisniewski. Together they returned to the other side of the road, where a security guard in a cart shouted “cross your fingers, you never know!”
“Yeah, I agree,” Mike Thomas said.
They joined Thomas in the service building, but not for long. Mito Pereira’s birdie putt on the 17th had stopped just short of the hole, and at 5:34 p.m. he hit a gruesome shot on the 18th that ended in the creek on the right side of the fairway. The roar could be heard across the road, and almost the instant it happened, the doors to the support services building burst open. Thomas led the way, his face frozen in intense concentration, totally erased from the disappointment he had shown a few minutes earlier. He and his team headed for a nearby golf cart. Bones sat up front and Mike Thomas in the back. Meanwhile, Colt Knost with CBS informed everyone that Will Zalatoris saved a remarkable par to finish at five under. Thomas now knew he wouldn’t win right away, but the chances of a two or three playoff suddenly looked very good.
They were bound for the range. When the reporters caught up with them, Thomas was hitting the irons as his father stood behind him, watching each blow with his arms folded. An Irish and Italian flag was flapping to his right, cameras were everywhere, and Bones momentarily took off his shopping cart gear and looked like the announcer he had been lately. As the Goodyear airship drone buzzed overhead and Thomas transitioned to his woods, Knost gave them updates on Pereira’s progress. The PGA of America’s Anthony Witrado handed his phone to a group of reporters, and onscreen Pereira missed a bogey putt from the green. The man who had led all day and looked like the certain winner after his practice on 17 was now completely out – the playoffs would be Thomas and Zalatoris.
Some confusion ensued as the format was set – three holes, cumulative, starting at 13, then 17, then 18 – and Thomas walked up the hill to the green. Zalatoris was already there – he had only opted for the putt – and the whole time they were near each other, Thomas never looked at him once. Savvy fans had found the place, gathered outside the door and started shouting their names as they hit their putts.
At 5:50 a.m., a PGA of America official appeared on the green.
He didn’t need to say more. They walked through the door as the fans roared and jumped into two separate carts with their teams. The cameras scrambled to follow in their own carts; Thomas continued to resolutely avoid looking at Zalatoris.
At 5:52 p.m., 35 minutes after Thomas had completed the 18th hole and cast a desperate look at the scoreboard, the carts began to move. They quickly disappeared around the corner, bound for the 13th tee and the playoffs to decide the PGA Championship.