HARTFORD, Conn. – Lee Westwood was the sentimental choice to win the biggest title of his Hall of Fame career, but an emotional Justin Thomas emerged from a plethora of challengers with a spectacular run around the turn to capture The Players Championship on Sunday March 14.
Thomas, who began the day three strokes behind Westwood, went birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie starting at the ninth hole on the way to a closing 4-under-par 68 for a 72-hole total of 14-under 274 and a one-stroke victory over the veteran Englishman at TPC Sawgrass.
Thomas was one stroke outside the cut line after 27 holes but shot 17 under the rest of the way, including a record-tying 132 over the weekend. He was still three back after a three-putt bogey at the eighth hole Sunday, but one of the game’s best ball strikers then went 5 under in the next four holes and never trailed again on the way to the $2.7 million first prize against the strongest and deepest field in golf.
“I’m so happy to be the Players champion,” said a weary Thomas, a likely entry for the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell on June 24-27. “I fought so hard today, I stayed really patient. I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff happen on the back nine here, and I was glad I was on the better side of it. It was one of the best rounds of my life, tee-to-green, considering the circumstances.”
Thomas referred to his grandfather, Paul Thomas, dying before the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open on Feb. 8, facing criticism for an homophobic slur during the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January and his close friend and frequent Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup partner Tiger Woods being seriously injured in a solo-car accident near Los Angeles on Feb. 23.
“A lot of (Paul) was with me today,” Thomas said as he fought back tears during an interview with NBC/Golf Channel’s Steve Sands. “I wish I could talk to him, but it’s a sign that he was watching.”
Mike Thomas, the only teacher that Justin has had, acknowledged the past few months had been difficult on his son.
“We’ve been through a lot, and losing my dad, I think, impacted Justin quite a bit,” said Mike, who gave Justin a bearhug as he walked off the 18th green. “He just kind of has not been himself, which is understandable. He kept getting better every day this week, which was good. He’s wasn’t hitting it great, but he kept getting it better and better. It was nice for him.
“I told him when it was over that it looked like a round of the old Justin Thomas, just ball striking the heck out of it. Geez, it he’d had that putter rocking and rolling, he’d have won by six or seven, but it was good to see that ball striking come back because that’s kind of what’s been missing.”
Justin couldn’t resist taking a playful jab at Woods, who has constantly kept in touch with Justin since his grandfather’s death. Thomas has even talked about playing home run derby in Tiger’s living room and said, “I’m sick to my stomach and just worry about his kids” when he heard about the accident that Woods was fortunate to survive. The two were paired together in the first two rounds of the Father-Son event in December in Orlando, Fla. Justin played with Mike, and Tiger was paired with 11-year-old son Charlie, the youngest competitor in the history of the tournament.
“I was replaying what Tiger told me a lot in my head,” Thomas told Sands. “He likes to give me a lot of grief, especially when he’s not here, and I think like calling him, like Bryson said, we’re all pulling for him, and I’m so glad to hear everything has been going well with him. But yeah, part of me wishes he was here so I could rub it in his face a little bit more. But no, I’m happy, and I hope he’s happy, and I always appreciate his help.”
When pressed about what Tiger has been telling him, Thomas said, “Just to stay patient. It’s been a lot of stuff, but it’s between us, and it’s great. He’s so nice to myself and Bryson and so many guys out here that if you would have told us when we were 15, 20 years old that Tiger Woods was texting us the night before we have a chance to win the tournament trying to inspire us, that’s pretty cool.”
Thomas, 27, who moved from third to second in the Official World Golf Ranking behind reigning Travelers Championship titlist Dustin Johnson, joined Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller as the only players since 1960 to win 14 PGA Tour titles before turning 28. He also joined Woods, Henrik Stenson and Rory McIlroy as those to capture The Players, a major championship (2017 PGA Championship), a World Golf Championships event and the FedExCup.
Thomas earned $2.7 million from a $15 million purse, both PGA Tour records, plus 600 FedExCup points to vault from 10th to second behind Bryson DeChambeau, who continued his torrid stretch with a closing 71 for 276 and a tie for second with Brian Harman (69) at 276, one back of Westwood, whose 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole gave him 72 and solo second. DeChambeau, who has already committed to the Travelers Championship, won the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week, beating Westwood by a stroke, and now has five Top-10 finishes in eight starts in 2020-21.
It was another crushing disappointment for Westwood, who now has 24 Top-10 finishes in the four majors and The Players without a victory. He has won 25 European Tour titles in four decades and was trying to become the first PGA Tour player to go 10 years or more between victories twice. He’ll get some consolation Monday and Tuesday when he plays Masters practice rounds at Augusta National with his son, Sam, as “a good lads-and-dads trip” in a warmup for caddying for his father in the first major of the year in April.
“I didn’t quite have my game today,” Westwood said. “I don’t know what it was. Maybe I just haven’t played a lot of golf. I hate to say it, age is catching up with me. (Saturday) I felt like my legs were just starting to get a bit tired and weak, and today I just didn’t feel like I had my legs under me. I was hitting shots I don’t normally it.”
Despite the loss, Westwood’s caddie/fiancée, Helen Story, found Thomas to give him a cool keepsake, the pin flag from the 18th hole. Thomas had finished in the group ahead of Westwood and Story, so it was a mighty classy move by Helen. She and Lee are awesome people, and while they couldn’t share their biggest win, they did earn $1,635,000, which ain’t bad.
The tournament wrapped up a year in which the PGA Tour shut down after one round of The Players a year ago. Thomas was among those serving on the Player Advisory Council that was a part in getting golf back from the COVID-19 pandemic. He looked at the gold trophy with commissioner and Trinity College grad Jay Monahan to soak in how far golf had come in a year.