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Breakthrough Major

Sent on Friday, August 25, 2017

Motivated by the success of his best friend Jordan Spieth and other young players who had won major titles, Justin Thomas, whose PGA roots run deep, nailed down his first one on August 13 in Charlotte, N.C., capturing, appropriately, the 99th PGA Championship at steamy Quail Hollow Club.

Thomas, 24, fired a final-round 3-under 68 to become the eighth first-time major winner in the last nine majors dating to Jason Day's victory in the 2015 PGA at Whistling Straits. Thomas' father and grandfather are PGA professionals, and he became the eighth player whose father was a PGA pro to capture the organization's flagship event.

Incidentally, Thomas' grandfather, Paul, lives in Columbus. He was the longtime head professional at nearby Zanesville Country Club.

It seemed like only a matter of time for the Kentucky native to break through after already putting together an impressive season. Thomas, a native of Goshen, Ky., already had three victories, including a wire-to-wire romp at the Sony Open in Hawaii, where he shot an opening 59 at Waialae Country Club. Thomas also shot a 9-under 63 at the U.S. Open this year at Erin Hills, near Milwaukee, the lowest round in relation to par in the championship.

"For me, the PGA definitely had a special place in my heart, and maybe a special drive," said Thomas, who finished at 8-under 276 to defeat a trio of challengers by two strokes. "I want to win every tournament I play in. I want to try to win every major. But at the end of the day, this was really cool. For this to be my first one and have my dad here, and I know grandpa was watching at home. I was able to talk to him and that was pretty cool. It's just a great win for the family."

Thomas, who began the day two strokes behind Kevin Kisner, leader or co-leader each of the first three rounds, won $1.89 million and moved up to No. 6 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Former British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen, Italy's Francesco Molinari and American Patrick Reed were next at 278. Reed and Molinari each equaled the day's low round with 67s and posted their first top-10 finishes in majors.

Second-round co-leader Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, a former winner of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, was one of five players who held at least a share of the lead on the final day, but slipped back after carding a 72 to tie for fifth with Rickie Fowler, who also had a 67. Kisner, a South Carolina product, shot 74 and fell into a tie for seventh with Canada's Graham DeLaet.

"I just had an unbelievable calmness throughout the week, throughout the day," said Thomas. "I truly felt like I was going to win. I remember my girlfriend was supposed to fly out at about 7 and I was like, ‘You need to change your flight to later, because I don't know, I just feel like I don't want you to miss this. I feel like I'm going to get it done.' I just was very confident."

Matsuyama, who a week earlier had fired a final-round 61 at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, to win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, saw his bid to become Japan's first major winner slip away when he bogeyed the 16th hole to fall two behind Thomas.

"The last major of the year, and I was in contention," said Matsuyama, a runner-up at the U.S. Open. "All I can do is try harder next time."

Jordan Spieth's quest to become the youngest player to win the career Grand Slam never really got started. With rounds of 72-73-71-70 he finished 3 over. But he was there at the end, anyway, as he and Rickie Fowler and Bud Cauley, some of Thomas' closest friends, were there to help him celebrate his breakthrough victory on one of the most difficult layouts in recent memory in the PGA Championship.

The first celebratory hug, however, came from his father, Mike.

"It's the PGA Championship. I'm a PGA member, my Dad's a PGA member, and it's just a special moment," said the elder Thomas. "I told him before the round, ‘You know, you're second in the field in birdies. If you make a bogey you don't need to panic. Just be smart out there, don't do something stupid.' Once he birdied 17, I said to myself on the tee shot on 18, ‘Man, just get this thing on land somewhere. It can be in the beer stand, it doesn't matter where it is, just get it on land and make a five.'... It's really special, it's really cool. To win is so hard."

Thomas' victory was the third by a player in his 20s in this year's majors. Brooks Koepka, 27, won the U.S. Open at Erin Hills with a record-tying 16-under 272 total, and Spieth walked an emotional tightrope in capturing the British Open at Royal Birkdale for the third leg of the career grand slam. Had he won the PGA at Quail Hollow, Spieth, 24, would have surpassed five-time Memorial winner Tiger Woods as the youngest to complete the cycle.

The year's other major went to Sergio Garcia, who finally broke through at age 37. He beat former Memorial winner Justin Rose in a playoff, a harbinger of things to come as all four major winners had to fight down to the wire.

Weirdly, the four champions had something else in common. Each has six letters in his first name and six letters in his last name. Had anyone spotted the trend sooner, they'd have known Justin Thomas was the favorite at the PGA.

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