29-year-old Justin Thomas claimed his second PGA Championship title at the Southern Hills Championship Course, winning an eventual three-hole playoff with Will Zalatoris. Thomas started the final day seven shots behind the leaders, but managed to post a positive final round of 67 (three under) – just four shots more than the lowest 18-hole score record – to close with a championship score of five under.
That didn’t look like being enough as Chilean Mito Pereira held a firm grip at the top of the leaderboard. That was until the 18th hole when Pereira inexplicably dropped two shots by finding the creek off the tee. Pereira would eventually finish four under, with English pair Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Fitzpatrick another shot back.
Pereira was looking to become the first Latin American golfer to land the Wanamaker Trophy. It looked like being something of a procession for the Chilean heading into the penultimate hole. Pereira had a birdie putt to extend his lead at the top of the leaderboard to two shots on the 17th hole. However, he inexplicably came up short of the hole with his putt and this seemed to sow seeds of doubt in Pereira’s mind.
Pereira then sliced his tee drive on the 18th into the creek, heightening the drama and forcing him to accept a double-bogey. Thomas’ five-under score proved enough to join a play-off with compatriot Will Zalatoris. It was rich reward for his consistency on the final round – and indeed across the entire event.
Thomas finished up second in the championship for greens-in-regulation (GIR), with a final percentage of 69.44%. He showcased tremendous ball control across all four days, with his vertical and lateral ball flight maximizing the contours and slopes surrounding the greens of Southern Hills. GIR is still one of the most popular measures of approach accuracy, with golf and data remaining intrinsically linked when it comes to defining the fine margins between success and failure.
The play-off between Thomas and Zalatoris
The three-hole play-off between Thomas and Zalatoris was always going to be a tense affair. Zalatoris is a relative newbie at the back end of majors, but in his last eight major attempts he has posted five top-ten finishes. For Thomas, he was looking to channel the spirit of 2017, when he landed his inaugural golf major at the PGA Championship.
The key to Thomas’ play-off success was his magnificent drive on the second play-off hole, the par-four 17th. Thomas fired off the tee to within 30-40 feet of the flag, taking immediate control of this hole. Zalatoris was outscored by one shot across holes 13, 17 and 18 for the play-off, which proved decisive. Looking back at the data and comparing the regulation play of Zalatoris and Thomas, the latter was four shots better off, underlining his richly deserved victory.
A case of what could have been for Mito Pereira
Pereira was graceful in defeat, having been well set to clinch his first golf major. The Chilean, ranked 100th in the world rankings, admitted he was “really nervous” throughout the final day. He acknowledged that he “thought [he] was going to win on 18” and those emotions may have got the better of him when he sprayed the ball off the tee.
It could so easily have been an Englishman holding the Wanamaker Trophy aloft too. Not since 1919 has an English golfer won the PGA Championship, but Matt Fitzpatrick came within two shots of reaching the play-off. His closing round of 73 eventually proved his undoing. Compatriot Tommy Fleetwood finished the tournament on the up with four birdies on the back nine of his final round catapulting him into tied fourth – his best finish in a golf major since the 2019 Open.
It was another bitterly disappointing week for Rory McIlroy, who shot 65 in his first round but then failed to back it up with any real consistency. He finished the championship two under par and in seventh place overall, just three shots back from Thomas and Zalatoris. As for Thomas, the Kentucky-born star will be looking to back up his performance in Tulsa at the 150th Open Championship at the Old Course, St Andrews in July.