Justin Thomas capitalises on Pereira calamity to win a second PGA Championship

Comeback from seven shots down matched the PGA Championship record set in 1978 by John Mahaffey at Oakmont. 
Justin Thomas capitalises on Pereira calamity to win a second PGA Championship

ALL MINE: Justin Thomas poses with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club.

TULSA, Oklahoma – Justin Thomas was pretty sure he didn’t do enough. He’d played the best golf in Oklahoma in the hardest conditions for two days but stumbled to a Saturday 74 that left him seven shots behind. For the first 10 holes Sunday he treaded water and still languished six or seven shots off the lead. Even with three birdies on the back, when his 11-footer slid past the cup on 18 he seemed resigned in the moment that his clubhouse lead of 5-under par would not hold up.

Minutes later, Will Zalatoris buried an 8-footer for par to join Thomas in the house at 5-under. The young man who considers himself a “majors specialist” had been leaking bogeys until he made a birdie on 17 to gain a share with Thomas. He’d already thought his hopes were over when his drive was heading toward the water on 18 but hit a tree and fell safely. He, too, had to wait to see what the relative unknown playing behind him would do.

For most of the weekend at Southern Hills, the PGA Championship was Mito Pereira’s to win or lose. A year ago, the 27-year-old Chilean wasn’t even on the PGA Tour. Playing only his second career major and first on the weekend, Pereira stubbornly refused to yield. He stumbled but bounced back, nursing his three-shot cushion to start Sunday into a one-shot lead over Thomas and Zalatoris heading to the last tee.

“I thought I was nervous the first day,” said Pereira. “Then I thought I was nervous the second day. Then I thought I was nervous on the third day. But the fourth day was terrible. I mean, this morning was tough. I don't know, I mean, I just played it through, and actually had a one-shot lead on 18 and that was pretty good.” 

Not good enough, it turned out. Pereira chose driver despite a creek that lurked ominously across the fairway. It was a fateful choice. His drive went right and into the creek. After a drop his approach went over the green. Needing up-and-down to save bogey and join a three-way, three-hole playoff, he chipped over the green and made a crushing double – a finish that will join Jean van de Velde at Carnoustie and Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot in the annals of 72nd-hole major calamities.

“I thought I was going to win on 18 and sad to hit it in the water,” Pereira said. “I mean, I wish I could do it again.” 

Instead it was Thomas and Zalatoris who got second chances in the three-hole aggregate playoff, and Thomas made it count with birdies on the first two holes (13 and 17) and a tap-in par on 18 to win his second PGA Championship. He won his first in 2017 at Quail Hollow.

“I just couldn't believe I found myself in a playoff,” Thomas admitted.

In the end, Thomas won it in record fashion. His comeback from seven shots down matched the PGA Championship record set in 1978 by John Mahaffey at Oakmont. Mahaffey rallied from seven behind Tom Watson and beat Watson and Jerry Pate with a birdie on the second sudden-death playoff hole.

Zalatoris earned his second major championship runner-up, matching his result in his 2021 Masters debut. He left Southern Hills disappointed but undaunted.

“I know I'm going to get one. Just a matter of time,” he said.

NERVES: Mito Pereira
NERVES: Mito Pereira

It was the kind of Sunday that seemed destined for a bit of crazy at the finish. All of the top six players to start the day ahead of Thomas shot over par. Matt Fitzpatrick, the most experienced of the lot, never generated any pressure on Pereira in the final pairing at shot 73. Zalatoris (71) rose and fell and rose again. Cameron Young, Zalatoris’ college teammate at Wake Forest, grabbed a share of the lead only to blow it with a double bogey on 16 and shot 71. Mexico’s Abraham Ancer shot 73. Waterford’s Séamus Power made double early and shot 72.

Rory McIlroy made the most noise early with four birdies in the first five holes to get to 4-under par – one shot short of the eventual mark – but never made another and finished alone in eighth at 2-under.

Thomas himself was only even par through 10 holes and struggling to make a move. He completely shanked his tee shot on the par-3 sixth and scrambled to salvage a bogey. Other than that, he was just waiting for a spark, which he ignited with birdies at 9, 11 and 12.

“I had a good feeling,” he said. “I felt like I probably needed to get it to 6 or 7 (under) at start of the day, but I also knew last night there was a chance that I could shoot 2-, 3-, 4-under and it could be good enough. Although I was so far back there weren't that many guys ahead of me, and it's a very tough golf course and anything could happen.” 

Anything did and Thomas got the result that had been eluding him since winning last year’s Players Championship.

“I kept telling myself I've been here before,” Thomas said. “Although it's been five years, it's somewhere down in there.” 

When his birdie chance missed on 18, he thought he was done.

“When I missed the putt on 18 in regulation, I looked at the leaderboard and I had a pretty good feeling that that putt was pretty important,” he said. “I hit a really good putt, just hit it a little, little too hard.” 

But Thomas turned Pereira’s misfortune into his good fortune and was unrelenting in the playoff. He matched Zalatoris with birdie on the par-5 13th and took the lead with his second birdie of the day on 17. All he needed as a par on 18 to seal it and he lagged his 25-footer to comfortable tap-in range to end it.

He credited a tough-love lecture from his caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay on Saturday night with getting his head in the right place to finish on Sunday.

“He was just like, ‘Dude, you've got to be stop being so hard on yourself. You're in contention every single week we're playing,’ “ Thomas said of Mackay’s message. “I've had a lot of chances to win tournaments, and it's a hard golf course; it's a major championship. You don't have to be perfect. Just don't be hard on yourself. Just kind of let stuff happen, and everything is trending in the right direction. So just keep staying positive so that good stuff can happen.” 

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