Justin Thomas is a big champion when he least expected it.
On Sunday, Thomas set a PGA championship record when he rallied with a seven-shot deficit at Southern Hills and then saved his most exquisite three-hole playoff shot to defeat Will Zalataris.
He closed with a score of 3 to 67, comparing to a low score in the final round complicated by more nerves than wind. He seized control of the playoffs from 3-two to 35 feet on the 301-yard 17th hole for two bird strikes.
He hit the par and straightened up with a smile, a mixture of joy and disbelief.
“Earlier in the week I was asked which lead was safe, and I said,‘ No lead, ’” Thomas said. “I can’t believe I ended up in the playoffs.”
Thomas needed a lot of help, and Mita Pereira provided it in a tragic end. The 27-year-old Chilean, who plays only in his second major program, led forward to the last hole with one shot and drove into the creek to make a double sucker.
It was the first time since Phil Mickelson’s Winged Foot at the 2006 US Open that the player lost a one-shot advantage in the final hole and lost in major.
Zalataris looked like he had lost his chances for his first major victory – and his first victory in the PGA Tour – when he scored three 20-foot shots on the 16th hole. But he responded with a birdie from the bunker on the 17th and on the 18th achieved an 8-foot drowning on the 71st.
He joined Thomas in 5-to-275 and they were playing when Pereira shook.
Thomas, who has passed 14 months since his last victory at The Players Championship last year, now has a victory in the PGA Tour each of the last eight years and moves up to 5th place in the world.
John Mahafi at the 1978 PGA Championship in Oakman was another player who struck seven from behind on the last day. He also won the playoffs for Tom Watson and Jerry Pate.
Thomas was still seven shots behind when he made his excellent run, a mix of key birds and avoiding mistakes in his card. It all started with a 65-foot bird strike from near the green to the back pin on the par-3 11th. He came closer with an 18-foot bird on the next hole.
He hid, and oil flowed from the leading flock behind him.
Zlataris and Cameron Young caught Pereira, albeit briefly. They all found trouble in the rough and in the sand. 16th Thomas nearly punched a long bunker shot, made a birdie out of the left bunker on the attainable 17th and made a 10-foot birdie as he thought he needed at the end.
He missed, and got a reprieve.
Pereira was on the verge of becoming Chile’s first major champion and giving South America a Grand Slam career.
Even after five bugs he never lost the lead and put nominal saves from the hopper to the left of the ninth green and well behind the 10th green. None was bigger than his 12-foot kick on the 16th to stay one shot ahead.
In one fell swoop it all came together.
His sawn swing with the driver, so effective on the previous hole, escaped to the right and into the creek on the right side of the 18th fairway. After falling from the penalty spot his approach up the hill started on the left and never backed down, landing on an uneven spot. His chip rolled back from the back edge of the green.
His double scarecrow gave him 75, which was the unfortunate end of such a promising week.
“On Monday I just wanted to make a stretch. On Sunday I wanted to win,” Pereira said. “I’ll take it to learn for the future.”
Young, whose father is a longtime PGA professional, will also look back at missed chances. Playing with Zalatoris, a former roommate in Wake Forest, Young was in the mix all day and was briefly equal to the leader. His hopes ran out on the 16th, he found a bunker to the right of the green, exploded weakly at 30 feet and put on a double scarecrow three times. He closed with 71.
Matt Fitzpatyk of England, who played in the final group with Pereira, also remained in the radius, lagging behind him by two strokes while his untidy scarecrow of the 17th. He scored 73 and finished fifth with Tommy Fleetwood (67) and Chris Kirk (68).
Rory McIlroy made a short run with four birds in a row in the top nine, putting him in the 4th lowest score in the tournament. For the rest of the way he was 2nd and finished eighth.
In the eight major tournaments at Southern Hills it was the first time a player had rallied with any advantage to win, and it was only the second playoff. Retif Guzen won another in the 2001 US Open after scoring three goals in the last 12-foot hole. At least he got another chance, unlike Pereira.
Six of Southern Hills ’previous seven major champions are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. The 29-year-old Thomas, now with two majors among 15 wins in the PGA Tour, will probably head there one day.