AKRON, Ohio — Well, that seems like pretty much the optimum way to warm up for your first title defense in a major championship, now doesn’t it?
Justin Thomas submitted a scorecard only slightly more exciting than a tax return Sunday at Firestone Country Club, but he didn’t need theatrics to capture his ninth PGA Tour title. He needed execution and exactitude, and his perfunctory one-under 69 was more than enough for a four-stroke victory over Kyle Stanley in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Winner of last year’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, Thomas won for the first time since defeating Luke List in a playoff at the Honda Classic in February, and he equaled World No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson with his third victory of the 2017-’18 PGA Tour season.
Next stop is Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis for the 100th PGA—a tree-lined, 7,500-yard, par-70 brute that should reward the kind of ball-striking Thomas offered on Firestone’s South Course, the famed Monster that had as much bite as a Muppet for two days before the breeze picked up slightly and the greens baked in the 90-plus degree heat. Only Tiger Woods has won the PGA in consecutive years in the stroke-play era of the championship.
“I was in a great spot because it’s hard to attack and make birdies out here when it’s like this,” said Thomas, 25, a Kentucky native who made two birdies against one bogey on Sunday and completed 72 holes in 15-under 265. “The first two days it would have been a lot harder to hold a three-shot lead than it was today. We were just kind of playing smart and trying to make as many pars as we could and sprinkle in a couple of birdies.
“I take a lot of pride in how I played today.”
Thomas was a rather fitting winner of the last edition of this event at Firestone, given his Ohio ties. His grandfather, Paul Thomas, served as a club professional in Zanesville, Ohio, near Columbus, for more than 25 years. “I’m glad I finally played well here—just in time to leave,” Justin said with a wry smile. “I already have a very special feeling for this part of the country.”
Next year, with FedEx sponsoring it, this World Golf Championships event convenes at TPC Southwind in Memphis.
Sunday’s final round started with the promise of a showdown between Ryder Cup foes Thomas and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who came in ranked No. 3 and No. 7, respectively, in the world. Trailing by three strokes, McIlroy had hopes of chasing down the reigning FedEx Cup champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year the way he overcame a three-shot deficit to Sergio Garcia to win at Firestone in 2014.
Instead, he and Ian Poulter, the first-round leader with a 62, Jon Rahm, Marc Leishman and Rickie Fowler—just to name a few notable figures lurking—all backpedaled, undone by the increasingly uncompromising layout. Seventy-three was the best any of them could manage.
That left the hunt to Jason Day and Kyle Stanley, who each crawled within two shots of Thomas early in the back nine only to stall out. Well, Stanley did, carding an eventual 68 for a 269 total. But Day, after three birdies to open the inward nine, played the final six holes in five over par. Johnson and Thorbjorn Olesen took advantage of the carnage to finish joint third thanks to 64s.
After beginning the weekend even par and tied for 46th, Johnson switched putters and played his final 36 holes in 10 under. He might be ready for Bellerive.
Thomas, who jumped to World No. 2 with the victory, clearly is ready after suffering just six bogeys all week. He led the field in strokes gained/approach to the green and was fourth tee to green.
Though it had been only 10 starts since his Honda Classic triumph, Thomas arrived here fighting frustration at his inability to follow up with commensurate success. He lost in a playoff to Phil Mickelson in the WGC-Mexico Championship, but had only one other top-10 finish. He had just missed the cut at the Open Championship at Carnoustie. So, on Tuesday, he met with his team—his father Mike, who is his swing coach, and caddie Jimmy Johnson—and they aired out a few issues.
The result? “I'm just in a great place mentally right now. I just was so patient and calm all week,” said Thomas, who had finished T-33 and T-28 in his previous two starts on the South Course.
Then came the scene at the home hole, and admittedly he found himself in an even better place.
Having his grandparents, Paul and Phyllis, in the audience elicited a deeply emotional response. The win was his first on the PGA Tour in their presence, though they did witness his maiden professional victory, the 2014 Nationwide Children’s Championship in Columbus on the Web.com Tour. Paul, who competed in the 1960 PGA Championship at Firestone South (and made the 36-hole cut with a second-round 72) was on hand all four days despite sweltering temperatures. He’s 86.
Handling heat runs in the family. Thomas is now six of eight converting a 54-hole lead into victory on tour. This was the best one of all, outside of capturing the Wanamaker Trophy. It was meaningful. It was special.
“I got a little choked up when I saw grandma and grandpa over there,” said Thomas, who kneeled and bowed his head behind the 18th green before two-putting for a win that has him feeling back on track. He then stopped to share a long hug with each of them on the way to the scoring trailer.
“When I had my putt, I kind of marked it and I turned around and I just happened to see my parents, saw my grandma and grandpa, and I just got a huge knot in my throat, and I just had to put my head down,” Thomas said. “I never have gotten like that on the golf course before. I wanted to win for them so bad. You just don't know if they're ever going to see me win if I don't win here, so it was pretty cool to get it done.”
It was the only time he choked all day.