HARTFORD, Conn. – Travelers Championship officials had to be gleefully glued to their television sets Sunday as the PGA Championship leaderboard was littered with players already committed to play in Cromwell June 23-26.
Chile’s Mito Pereira was not one of them and appeared to have the inside track on his first PGA Tour victory for most of a tense, breezy day at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. But the cruel nature of golf struck again as Pereira sliced his drive into a creek and made double-bogey 6 on the 18th hole to finish one behind Justin Thomas and Will Zalatoris, two of the early commitments to Connecticut’s biggest sporting event at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.
Thomas, who closed with a 3-under-par 67 while playing 45 minutes ahead of the leaders, and Zalatoris, who sank a clutch 8-foot par putt on the final green for 71, then played a three-hole aggregate score playoff. After both players birdied the first extra hole, the par-5 13th, Thomas drove the 302-yard, par-4 17th and two-putted for a birdie for 35 feet while Zalatoris hit his tee shot right of green and failed to make an 8-footer to tie.
Zalatoris missed a 35-foot birdie putt at the 18th hole, and when Thomas two-putted from 20 feet, he had rallied from a seven-stroke deficit, tying the third largest in major championship history entering the final round, to win the Wanamaker Trophy for the second time, the first coming in 2017 at Quail Hollow Golf Club in Charlotte, N.C. The PGA Championship’s previous playoff was in 2011, when Vermont native Keegan Bradley defeated Jason Dufner at the Atlanta Athletic Club.
“It was a bizarre day and the first time that I won hitting a shank (on the sixth hole) and made the best bogey in my life,” said Thomas, 29, who shot 5-under the last 12 holes to finish at 5-under 275 and earn a record $2.5 million. “I was asked early in the week what lead is safe, and I said, ‘No lead.’ I can’t believe I found myself in a playoff.”
It had to be why he uttered, “Oh, my God!,” pulled off his hat, looked at the sky and felt the first tears run down his cheeks after tapping in a 6-inch par putt to clinch the playoff.
In the irony of ironies, Thomas’ caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, worked 25 years for Phil Mickelson, who became the oldest major champion in history last year at 50 but elected not to defend after making controversial comments on the Saudi-backed LIV Invitational Series landed him in hot water with the PGA Tour. And in another touch of irony, Pereira’s late demise was the first time a player lost a one-shot lead on the final hole to lose a major since Mickelson in the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Thomas said a “tough-love” conversation with MacKay on the range Saturday night proved why he wanted “Bones” to come out of retirement from TV commentating to caddie for him.
“I’m fully confident in saying that I wouldn’t be standing here if he didn’t give me that talk,” said Thomas, who moved from ninth to fifth in the world rankings. “I just needed to let some steam out. I didn’t need to bring my frustration and anger home with me. I didn’t need to leave the golf course in a negative frame of mind. I played pretty well (Saturday) for shooting 4-over, and I felt like I’d played terrible. And he was like, dude, you’ve got to stop being so hard on yourself. You’re in contention every single week we’re playing.
“I left here in an awesome frame of mind. I think I was the last player here, and it was so peaceful. It was almost kind of eerie how beautiful it was outside, and there’s not very many times after shooting 4-over on Saturday of a major that I left in as good a frame of mind.”
Thomas had gone 14 months without winning, dating to The Players Championship last year, but he now has two PGA Championship titles among his 15 career victories. And the Travelers Championship field has the first two major winners of the year, as No. 1-ranked Scottie Scheffler captured the Masters in April for his fourth victory of the year.
Rory McIlroy, who is also committed to the Travelers Championship, had another brief spell of Sunday major magic, making four consecutive birdies on Nos. 2 through 5 to climb into the top five. But he bogeyed the sixth, managed only pars on his next 10 holes before another bogey at the 17th. In April, McIlroy shot a closing 64, matching the lowest final round in Masters history and ended up in second. He finished eighth.