With a second consecutive walk-off birdie capping a second consecutive 67, Justin Thomas walked off Southern Hills taking the PGA Championship lead away from Rory McIlroy at 6-under 134 through two windy days.
Thursday night, Thomas “stole” strokes from the field making a 3 on an 18th hole that was more likely to yield double bogey than birdie. On Friday after a challenging morning battling gusting winds, Thomas played a perfect ninth and drained a 9-footer to claim the outright lead for the first time.
“The way I played the last hole, I couldn't have really drawn it up any or much better,” said Thomas, whose lone major championship victory same at the 2017 PGA at Quail Hollow.
“A perfect kind of little slider driver and leaving that gap wedge just under the hole there and making that putt right in the middle. That was a nice way to end it.” While his score was the same, Thomas’ form Friday was even better considering the challenges presented by strong winds gusts and greens that hadn’t been cut or rolled to help keep the course under control.
“Although I played solid yesterday, I played really, really well today,” he said. “The conditions were obviously very difficult. I stayed very patient, tried to get in my own little world and get in a zone and just tried to execute each shot the best I could. I felt we did a great job of that and am glad to have a good round to show for it.”
Thomas shot the lowest score of the morning wave, sharing the 3-under mark with two-time PGA champion Brooks Koepka and Austrian Bernd Wiesberger. Employing a new strategy of trying to play his way into a major instead of taking the week off, he’s liked the results thus far as he’s put himself into a position he hasn’t been in often enough since last winning at the 2021 Players Championship.
“So far I'm obviously pleased with it,” Thomas said of his decision to play last week’s PGA Tour event in Texas. “We have two days left, and I just feel like last week got me in a little better routine and just preparation coming into this week.
“But you never know. If I'm playing well, I hope and feel that I would still be able to shoot 67-67 coming off an off week. But it's easy to say right now due to recency bias that it was a good decision.” Gaining the 36-hole lead has always been key to winning at Southern Hills, as the last 10 winners in tournaments hosted here including all seven major championships have owned at least a share of the halfway lead.
The biggest threats to wrest it away from him by the end of play Friday were overnight leader McIlroy, who got off to a bad start Friday, Will Zalatoris and Abraham Ancer.
Zalatoris and Ancer each climbed within a shot of Thomas with some early second-round birdies.
“If I maintain the lead, I hope that that trend continues,” Thomas said.
“I mean, I like this golf course. I feel like I'm playing well. We're halfway through so it's still a long way from home, but I'm very, very pleased with where everything is at and the frame of mind and state of mind that I'm in. Just need to try to maintain that the best that I can and keep trying to play good golf.”
A day after 17 players broke par in the morning wave under the best of conditions, only 10 players did the same on Friday in sterner winds. Like Thomas, only England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick managed to stack consecutive rounds in the 60s, with Friday’s 69 moving him to 3-under 137 and tied for fourth three shots back when he finished.
“Obviously, we’ll see how the conditions are the rest of the afternoon – I think it was forecast to sort of die down a little bit,” Fitzpatrick said. “I'm really happy with the way I played the first two days. Really, really happy. Just got to build on it tomorrow, and yeah, looking forward to it.”
Thomas and Fitzpatrick were the only two late-early players to finish their morning rounds on Friday among the top 10 on the leaderboard. Chile’s Joaquin Niemann, American Talor Gooch and Wiesberger were all in the clubhouse at 1-under overall but just outside the top 10 as the after leaders got underway.
Waterford’s Séamus Power carded one of those morning 69s – his first major round in the 60s – to get back to even par overall and into position to contend on the major weekend for the first time.
“Anything under par you’re never going to be too upset,” said Power. “I had it to a couple under and obviously it was disappointing to drop one near the end, but overall I’m very pleased going into the weekend so hopefully I can keep it going.”
Koepka was one of several prominent players to play himself back into the weekend after opening-round struggles. His 67 after an opening 75 got him back to 2-over 142. Jon Rahm recovered from his opening 73 to also get it back to 2-over with a 69.
What will it take for guys sitting over par to cover the gap on Thomas?
“Maybe one deep round. Maybe,” said Koepka. “I mean, it's going to take more than that just to come close, but yeah, definitely need one really good round.”
Offaly’s Shane Lowry had a great chance to put himself high on the leaderboard after climbing to 2-under with a pair of early birdies, but he fell off with a 4-over 39 on the front side to finish at 2-over 142.
“Disappointing to play the nine holes like that,” Lowry said