Thomas drives away with BMW

Writing from Medinah, Illinois

Sunday, August 18, 2019 

Justin Thomas made 27 birdies and two eagles this week on Medinah No. 3, but the biggest reaction he made all week came when he sank a 14-foot putt to save par on the treacherous par-4 12th hole.

An instant after the ball tumbled into the cup, Thomas’ right fist punched the air. His lead over challenger Patrick Cantlay in the BMW Championship would remain three strokes. It had been six at the start of the day, then was whittled to five, four and then two with a two-shot swing on the par-5 10th. Thomas had birdied the 11th with a lovely pitch to two feet to go three strokes ahead, but with Cantlay threatening, he couldn’t afford another miscue.

Thus, the long punch-out to the fairway after finding the right rough off the tee, followed by the pitch to 14 feet. Followed by, to his great relief, the par-saving putt.

“The birdie on 11 was big but the par on 12 was bigger,” Thomas said. “The tee shot was right behind a tree, and Jimmy (Johnson, his caddie) said, ‘Chip it out.’ That putt gave me a lot of momentum.”

Enough for him to grab the BMW Championship by the keyring and drive away with it.

Cantlay would get no closer than three strokes the rest of the way, and while Hideki Matsuyama, who needed only 20 putts in slapping his second 63 in three days on the scoreboard, he was never a threat.

Thomas’ total is almost a typographical error: 25-under-par 263 with a finishing 4-under 68. Cantlay’s runner-up total of 22-under 266 with a closing 7-under 65 would have won all but seven of the 116 playings of the Western Open / BMW. Hideki Matsuyama took third at 20-under 268 by throwing a second 9-under 63 in three days into the fight. And he was still five strokes back. 

Tony Finau’s score of 18-under 270, good for solo fourth place, was the winning score of Tiger Woods at the 2006 PGA. The ghost of Tom Bendelow, the original architect of No. 3, must be wondering what the royal and ancient game has come to.

While Thomas moseyed about Medinah like it was his personal playground as some 35,000 fans looked on, appearances deceived.

“I was really nervous driving to the course,” Thomas said. “Time to put the phone away. Then the locker room guys giving me advice on how to finish off a tournament. I was like, ‘I’ve done this a couple times, guys, but thank you.’ It’s a lot of the outside noise that makes it harder sometimes to stay focused.”

Turned out having a six-stroke lead made him more nervous than a pot of coffee, and invited the world to offer a pat on the back.

“I had guys telling me congratulations on the front nine, on No. 13,” Thomas said. “This tournament is far from over.”

Thomas was 1-under on the front nine and even for the day after a bogey on the 10th hole, but hammered a wedge out of the right rough on the par-4 11th to two feet for a birdie he said “propelled me.” He might have been too giddy given the next tee shot, but the big save steadied him and he played final final six holes in three under, sinking an 11-footer on the par-3 13th, a 4-foot, 9-inch putt on the par-4 15th, and a 14-footer at the par-4 18th, right after Cantlay closed with a 38-foot birdie.

Even that wasn’t good enough the way Thomas could seemingly summon the ball to disappear when he needed to down the stretch.

“I think I needed to make the putts on 12, 14 or 15 if I really wanted to get some momentum on my side,” said Cantlay, who birdied only the 15th, of those three holes, but missed a 19-footer for eagle after driving the green on the 291-yard hole. “Him saving par on 12 was big, and I tried to get one back on 13 (sinking a 15-footer for birdie) and he made it (from 12 feet) on top of me. I thought I hit good putts on 14 and 15 and they didn’t go in.

“He just played really well, and it was going to be hard for me to get to 25-under anyway.”

The triumph not only made Thomas $1.655 million richer, it vaulted him to the top see in next week’s Tour Championship. Under the curious handicap scoring system concocted by the PGA Tour’s skunk works, Thomas will be listed as 10-under on the scoreboard before he strikes a ball in anger. Cantlay, the No. 2 seed, will be 8-under, and so on until the final five players in the 30-man field, including Bryson DeChambeau, start at even par.

“I can certainly say one thousand percent I never slept on a Wednesday lead,” Thomas said to laughter.

The race to East Lake

Matsuyama, Lucas Glover and Jason Kokrak climbed into the top 30 and are off to Atlanta for a shot at the pot of gold, while Shane Lowry, Andrew Putnam and Harold Varner III dropped out to make room the them.

Tiger Woods finished tied for 37th at 7-under 281 and well out of the running to defend the Tour Championship he captured last year. He needed to finish 11th or thereabouts to have a chance at moving on.

“I didn’t have the short game I needed to make a run,” Woods said.

Only twice in 18 holes did his approach shot land within 20 feet of the cup.

“I don’t know if it’s reps or not. I didn’t have a feel for what I needed to do this week. I struggled out of the bunkers this week, especially today. I misjudged the sand – some were hard, some had some softness to it.”

Around Medinah

Phil Mickelson changed his shoes in the parking lot and hit only a few drives and chips before getting to the first tee, the hectic regimen because lighting struck the Eaglewood Resort and started a small fire during an early-morning thunderstorm. Mickelson evacuated but left his clubs and golf clothes in his top-floor suite. They were retrieved just in time. “The building got struck by lightning right above me and blew out a brick chimney,” Mickelson said. … To the PGA Tour’s credit, the round was played by USGA rules with the ball down, rather than the “lift, clean and place” local rule commonly used after heavy rains. Medinah was socked by over 3/4 of an inch of rain in the early morning, and 1.94 inches for the week. “I was very surprised,” Woods said of the decision. … Matsuyama’s 20-putt final round is the lowest for a Western Open in the Shotlink era. The PGA Tour mark is 18, shared by 10 players. … The scoring average for the week was 69.928, precisely 2.072 strokes under par, while the Round 4 average of 70.420 was the highest of the week. … There were seven bogey-free rounds on Sunday, jumping the week’s total to 34. Matsuyama, Tommy Fleetwood, Vaught Taylor and Brandt Snedeker each had two of them. … The announcement of BMW’s three-year extension as sponsor of the tournament neglected to mention the length, though that has been confirmed, came out Sunday rather than Tuesday after a clash of egos within the automaker, and was never issued as a printed release despite, or perhaps because of, three PR operations being involved. … Next year’s BMW is at Olympia Fields Country Club in south suburban Olympia Fields, which has hosted five previous Western Opens, the most recent, in 1971, won by Bruce Crampton.

Tim Cronin


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