Thomas' 61 tames Medinah's monster

Writing from Medinah, Illinois

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Justin Thomas had a bogey on the front nine of Medinah’s No. 3 course on Saturday.

He put a ball in the water on the back nine.

And he shot 61.

The course-record 63 set by Hideki Matsuyama on Friday lasted about 26 hours. Thomas blew it away with a performance that included two eagles, eight birdies, a bogey and seven pars, including a save after splashing his tee shot on the par-4 15th.

Thomas leads by six entering the final round, which means this edition of the BMW Championship is over. In the previous 115 playings of the Western Open / BMW, nobody has lost a lead this large after 54 holes.

Don’t tell Thomas that. He plans to mash the gas pedal when he tees off at 12:20 p.m.

“I just want to get the lead to seven as fast as I can, and then get the lead to eight,” Thomas said. “Those guys are going to come out firing. I can’t control what they do. I’m not going out there tomorrow trying to par every hole. If I hit the first fairway, I’ve got a wedge on my hand.”

Thomas needed only 22 putts, and none on the uphill par-4 16th, where he holed out a 179-yard 8-iron, then aimed his index finger on his right hand upward as if to say, “That’s one.” It was actually his second eagle of a back nine that totaled 6-under 30. His 5-wood from 259 yards on the 577-yard 10th hole crept to within three feet of the cup.

“When I put my ball down, a guy went ‘Noonan!’ Thomas said. “Now I’m thinking, ‘Is he gonna say something when I hit it?’ ”

He didn’t, and the ball plunked into the cup, moving him to 17-under-par. He was already in the lead, but that stretched his advantage over Patrick Cantlay and playing partner Tony Finau to three strokes. The rest of the field already needed binoculars to see him. By the end of the round, when he rolled in a four-footer for par at the last for 61 and 21-under 195, a telescope was necessary.

Thomas had opened with birdies on his first five holes before a bogey at No. 6. Thomas will have Finau – whose hole-out for eagle on the par-4 fourth was relegated to the cutting-room floor thanks to Thomas – and Cantlay in his threesome on Sunday, with split tees used to dodge expected overnight weather. Rory Sabbatini is seven strokes back, Jon Rahm eight behind, and everybody else is a rumor. 

Imagine for a moment that you are Gary Woodland, the National Open champion. You had a chance to match Matsuyama’s 63, but missed a seven-foot birdie putt at the last. You still had an eight-birdie, no-bogey 64, but will be tied for 18th, a dozen strokes behind Thomas, beginning the final round.

The scoring average of 69.667 was 2.333 strokes under par and the sixth-best round in relation to par in tournament history. But it’s not because Medinah is an architectural pushover, insisted both Thomas and Tiger Woods, twice a winner on this leafy acreage.

“It doesn’t matter what golf course it is,” Thomas said. “With soft greens and soft fairways, we’re going to tear it apart.”

Woods, desperate for a low round to advance to East Lake and defend his Tour Championship of last year, agreed.

“We all thought this was one of the more tough and bigger ballparks, and the whole field is playing well,” Woods said after his 5-under 67, his first bogey-free round on the circuit since the third round of last year’s BMW regatta at Aronimink Golf Club. “Normally a few guys are struggling. The entire field playing well is something that we’re all pretty surprised at.

“I think that’s the way the new game is played. When I first came out on Tour and before me especially, there’s a lot of 1-irons and stuff off the tees. Just kind of get it in play. Now you just pull out driver, bomb it down there and you’re looking for three to four good weeks a year. That’s how you play.

“It’s not the consistency, it’s not about making a bunch of cuts. With today’s equipment you can maximize a driver and just absolutely bomb it; some of the guys sacrifice stuff around the greens or short irons for the driver. The driver is the most important club in the bag now because of the way the game is played.”

Woods will start 14 strokes behind Thomas, the poster boy for the mantra this week: Go low or go home.

The 69 players in the field have been thinking that all week, especially now, as their Sunday morning tee times approach.

Go low, and you may go to Atlanta, where only 30 spots are available in next week’s Tour Championship, the one offering glory and a pot of gold.

Don’t go low, and you may be one of the 39 who will go home.

Those stakes almost make the notion of capturing the BMW and its $1.665 million first prize secondary, though nobody will say that on the record, especially when BMW’s extension of its sponsorship for three more years through 2022 will be announced on Sunday.

Regardless, WGA brass will likely shove the J.K. Wadley Trophy into Thomas’s hands on Sunday afternoon. He, at least, says the task at hand is the only thing on his mind at the moment. Others will says he’s been unconscious this week.

And remember Matsuyama, whose 63 broke the course record by two strokes way back on Friday? He scored 1-over 73 on Saturday and is 10 strokes behind. Fame is fleeting when you’re at Medinah, the former monster where bogeys go to die.

Last chance for Tigermania?

Woods kidded after his Saturday 67 that his target score for Sunday’s final round was 60.

It might be the final time he plays competitive golf in the neighborhood. Those who want to watch the best player since Jack Nicklaus in person would do well to come out to Medinah as early as possible for his 10:30 a.m. tee time.

At 43 and with a back that is as dependable as a 3-year-old’s memory, and with the potential of cutting back his schedule, there’s no reason to expect Woods to be among the top 70 players in the standings at this time next year, when he’s 44 and the BMW is played at Olympia Fields Country Club. With or without a renewal by the automaker, the tournament is expected to resume rotating in and out of town.

Woods drew the largest galleries on Thursday and Friday at Medinah, and another throng on Saturday, when he teed off with Dustin Johnson at 9 a.m. Early birds were treated to Woods’ 67, while Johnson was lackluster in scoring even par 72.

“I didn’t have any stupid mistakes where I made bogey from bad spots or from easy spots,” Woods said. “I did the little things and was able to keep the momentum going and made a couple putts here and there.”

Woods missed six greens but salvaged par each time, the result of cleaning up the little things.

“Nice to at least give myself a chance to make it to next week,” Woods said.

Around Medinah

The extension of BMW’s sponsorship, first reported by the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, has been confirmed by two sources within the WGA. What is not settled is where the tournament will be played beyond next year at Olympia Fields. … As things stand now, Matsuyama, Lucas Glover and Rory Sabbatini would jump into the top 30 in the season standings, and Shane Lowry, Andrew Putnam and Harold Varner III would fall out. That’s no real worry to Lowry, eligible for all the majors next year thanks to his British Open victory. … A 76-minute delay for severe weather that turned out to only be a heavy rain with no electricity softened Medinah even more, making fairways that much more likely to hit. … A bunch of Chicago Bears led by quarterback Mitch Trubisky visited on Saturday and spent some of their time hanging out with Evans Scholars.

Tim Cronin


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