Clutch PerformersOctober 22, 2019

Justin Thomas is making a case he's the best closer in golf

GOLF-USPGA-KOR
JUNG YEON-JEJustin Thomas of the US reacts after a birdie putt on the 8th green during the final round of the CJ Cup golf tournament at Nine Bridges golf club in Jeju Island on October 20, 2019. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

Good closers are hard to come by (go ask the Yankees).

In golf, getting it done on Sunday is even more difficult. No one has done it better than Tiger Woods (duh). When leading or tied for the lead after 54 holes in PGA Tour events, he has a remarkable record of 55 wins in 59 chances. When leading by himself, golf’s ultimate frontrunner, converting 43 out of 45 times, the latest coming at the 2018 Tour Championship, where he had a three-stroke cushion going into Sunday and cruised to his first victory in five years.

Leading by three helps of course. Justin Thomas had no such advantage at the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in South Korea after making a mess of the par-5 18th hole at Nine Bridges Golf Club on Saturday. He entered the final round tied with Danny Lee but shot a five-under 67 on Sunday to win by two.

The victory was the 11th of the 26-year-old’s career on the PGA Tour and it put him in rare company. Only Tiger and Jack Nicklaus have compiled more Ws by age 27, with 34 (!) and 20, respectively. Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth are next, also with 11.

That’s the list.

Not lost in Thomas’ latest triumph: He’s now eight-for-11 when leading or tied for the lead after 54 holes, which brings to mind a question:

Is Thomas the best closer in golf?

When comparing him to his contemporaries, at least, there’s a strong case to be made.

RELATED: The secret to Justin Thomas' success is simple: Never stop trying to go low

Let’s start with 30-year-old McIlroy and 26-year-old Spieth. They are 7-for-12 and 9-for-16, respectively, when it comes to cashing in final-round leads on tour.

The last time McIlroy led going into Sunday was at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude, where he had a one-shot edge over Brooks Koepka only to get dusted, shooting a 71 to Koepka’s 65. A month later, McIlroy got the revenge he was seeking, erasing a one-shot deficit to Koepka to win the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup. Still, he has at times struggled to close (see, 2018).

Spieth, who hasn’t won an official tournament since the 2017 Open at Royal Birkdale, has endured missed opportunities, too. In an odd pattern, he failed to convert the first four times in his career in which he led or shared the lead before cashing in on nine straight leads/co-leads. Since then, he’s 0-for-3 failed in his last three attempts to close out a 54-hole lead. The most infamous of those came at the 2016 Masters, where he led by a shot going into the last round and led by five with nine holes to play before imploding with a bogey-bogey-quad run on 10, 11 and 12.

Jason Day, who won MGM Resorts The Challenge: Japan Skins, an unofficial event, on Monday, followed a similar trend as Spieth early on. He converted just one of his first six leads/co-leads into victory. Since then, however, the 31-year-old 12-time tour winner is 6-for-7.

Koepka, who has seven career victories on tour, has also proven adept at closing. The 29-year-old four-time major champion is 4-for-6 overall, having gotten the job done each four of the last five times he has been atop the leader board. The most recent win came at the PGA Championship in May before falling short at the Tour Championship.

Koepka’s fellow bash bro Dustin Johnson? The 35-year-old with is 8-for-17 overall. He also has three additional wins in events that were shortened to 54 holes, having won two of those when leading after 36 holes.

Then there’s Rickie Fowler. He’s just 2-for-7, though he’s at least trending in the right direction, having won each of the last two times he took a lead into the final round, including earlier this year in Phoenix.

Thomas? He’s had his moments. At the Genesis Open earlier this year, he blew a four-stroke lead in the final round, imploding with a four-over 75 on a wind-whipped Sunday at Riviera.

Hey, no one’s perfect, not even Tiger, whose most infamous 54-hole lead that slipped away came when Y.E. Yang took him down at the 2009 PGA Championship.

Sometimes, someone else simply plays better. Sometimes, a player chokes.

Thomas is proving he doesn’t do much of the latter.

“I don't think you can ever necessarily call yourself the best closer,” he said after his victory at the CJ Cup. “I've only won 11 times. I feel like once I get to 40 or 50 times and I've closed a lot of those, then I think that's kind of different.”

Thomas is off to a good start.

“The biggest thing I think that I've gotten a lot better at is just learning, taking experiences and learning from them,” he said. “That's what I did early in my career. There were a couple times I felt like I should have won the tournament but I did something incorrectly or hit a wrong club or thought how I shouldn't have, and I was able when I finished to look back at that.

“That's all I'm trying to do because I feel like if I can just improve a little bit every year, then there's not really a ceiling that I feel like I can't reach.”