The Players Championship is often dubbed ‘the fifth major’ on the golfing calendar, and as Justin Thomas claimed his first victory at Ponte Vedra Beach on the famous Stadium Course, TPC Sawgrass had again thrilled like only any of the four majors can.
But it could have been so different. Having only made the cut courtesy of two birdies over the final three holes just to make the weekend on Friday, the 27-year-old stormed through the field on Saturday, posting a tournament-low 64, ready to pounce during the final round.
Overcoming his early struggles from his first 18 holes, the Kentuckian’s class eventually shone through effortlessly, and as those around made critical mistakes over the pivotal final holes, Thomas put together a 68, to seal the win.
Winning what is already his 14th PGA Tour title, Thomas becomes only the fourth player since 1960, to do so before the age of 28 and his victory was in the end a deserved one.
Not only that, but JT becomes just the third player other than Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, to have won the unique quadruple of the World Golf Championship, the Players Championship, the FedEx Cup and to also have claimed a major.
A popular winner
As Thomas clung to the prestigious Players trophy during the presentation on Sunday evening, the small convened throng of club representatives and dignitaries warmly embraced the latest champion at Sawgrass.
Thomas’ victory is a real feel-good shot in the arm for the golf family, and as the pandemic continues to rage across the globe, his own recent loss, drove the 2017 PGA champion on to an emotional and popular win this past weekend.
Since the passing of his grandfather last month, Thomas has felt the overwhelming support of the golfing fraternity, and it almost feels that in the most trying of times, the 2017 PGA champion has matured as both player and human being.
Since his win at Quail Hollow, Thomas never struggled to add to his Tour titles with a further eight wins and a see-sawing world number one ranking, but taking the next step in his career seemed to elude him. Winning in Florida once more however, it feels like he has done so.
In four years since his first major, his performances in the majors have largely been met with disappointment, but after finishing eighth at the US Open last September and fourth at Augusta four months ago, there were signs JT was finally putting the pieces together.
Taking the Players is a big chunk of the puzzle. Dustin Johnson had to wait four years to notch his second major; it rather feels like Thomas could be taking a similar path this year.
Further frustration but Westwood firing
To even be in the final pairing at the Players for Lee Westwood only weeks ago would have been a dream scenario, but after coming home runner-up for second weekend on the bounce, the Englishman will surely feel a similar sense of nagging frustration.
Having been able to carry his Arnold Palmer Invitational form over to Sawgrass would have been hugely exciting for Westwood this past weekend, but again holding a two-stroke lead at the turn for home for the second time in 10 days, it was not meant to be for the 47-year-old.
Still unable to break his 11-year drought without a Tour victory, the last two weeks for the veteran however, will give the Worksop man huge optimism, who until recently – whilst as consistent as ever – looked to have seen his best years move far off into the distance.
That makes 2021 look mighty appetising as far as Westwood goes, who though still without a major to his name, has come close on three occasions, taking second place twice at the Masters and the Open at St. Andrews during 2010, and then again at Augusta six years later.
Perhaps the big factor for the renaissance of Westwood has been the slow trickle of fans returning to tournaments in the US, and with 20% of the total gate permitted this weekend, we again saw a new, steelier, but above all happier, Westy.
As we saw with Paul Casey last year also, both Englishman now find themselves firmly at the right end of play but for Westwood in particular – now in the twilight of his 25th career year – could 2021 yet be his best?
Enduring further misery almost from the first tee, the Northern Irishman was an astonishing +7 over the opening nine holes, racking up a cumulative score of +6 over the 17th and 18th, after beginning his tournament at the 10th tee.
Finding something of a watery grave at Bay Hill last weekend, ‘Island Green’ claimed McIlroy as its own on Thursday, and left the four-time major winner desperately fighting the tide.
Failing to even reach the weekend, his embarrassment was complete by finishing his second round at +10, a full 10 shots off the cut mark.
In the past, McIlroy has struggled but shown fight, but here at Sawgrass, his game was so completely off. Indeed, it could be argued this was one of his worst career performances to date and it leaves many more questions than its does answers.
There is no obvious sign of distress in the Ulsterman on course, but with a player of such natural talent, his own hype may have caught up with him, and it must be chewing him up on the inside.
The old adage of form being temporary and class being permanent is keenly prominent to McIlroy’s current situation, but with his ability to even win a tournament looking far short of him, both are in short supply right now. Things have to change for him, and soon.
Chasing pack on hunt
With just four more Tour events until the Masters, the usual suspects are starting to form in number as genuine contenders for next month’s Green Jacket, however, behind them, there are a number names looking to build momentum before the trip to Georgia.
Not least Corey Conners, who, after finishing third at Bay Hill a week ago, added another top seven result to boast his credentials for the start of the four-month major swing.
The 29-year-old Canadian, who holds one PGA Tour win to his name from the 2019 Valero Texas Open in San Antonio, then enjoyed a stellar encompassing year with four top-10 finishes.
A much-disrupted 2020 then saw just one top 10 result – perhaps for obvious reasons – but his 2021 campaign is already his most successful, with five top-10 positions, including his impressive showing at the Arnold Palmer.
Though his challenge faltered late on over the past two tournaments – finishing T7 here – Conners’ FedEx Cup ranking has shot to 23 and as the approach to Augusta draws nearer, the man from Ontario will be one to watch in the coming weeks.
As will Brian Harman, whose third-placed finish at Sawgrass will have caught the eye. A two-time winner on US soil, Harman’s late surge on Sunday had the leaders momentarily scrambling, and as a native Georgian, the Masters cannot come soon enough.
Twenty-nine-year old Talor Gooch similarly, made a statement to the field this weekend, shooting -11, just one shot behind Bryson DeChambeau, and his win-less career was belied of his final 18-hole showing. Gooch will be keen to back up his performance at the Honda Classic next weekend in Palm Beach.
The 2021 Masters begins at the Augusta National, Georgia, on Thursday 8 April.
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