PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The resilience it takes to get through a nerve-jangling Sunday at Sawgrass was nothing compared with what Justin Thomas had been through already this year.
An otherwise impeccable start to his career on and off the course came under scrutiny in January with a slip of the tongue when he muttered an anti-gay slur under his breath that cost him one sponsor and led another to publicly reprimand him. Tougher still was the death last month of his grandfather, Paul, part of the legacy of golf pros in the Thomas family.
He found the right time to deliver a gem.
Thomas took on every shot in The Players Championship, right down to the 5-wood that rode the edge of the lake down the left side of the 18th fairway, and closed with a 4-under 68 for a one-shot victory over Lee Westwood.
He won for the seventh straight year, his 14th career title, and became only the fourth player to win a major, The Players Championship, the FedEx Cup and a World Golf Championship.
“It’s been a crappy couple months. I’ve had stuff happen in my life I never thought I’d have happen,” Thomas said. "Losing grandpa was terrible, and having to play a round of golf dealing with that, and then on top of that not playing well, it just was a lot, and it took a lot on me mentally.
“This week was huge to win a big championship like this in front of fans again, which is incredible. It tested me mentally, physically, emotionally, and I’m very proud of myself for getting it done.”
Like most Sundays at this championship, it was wild as ever.
Thomas was four shots behind when he walked off the green on the par-3 eighth with a three-putt bogey. Four holes later, he walked off the 12th green with a two-shot lead.
He hit a 5-iron to 20 feet to set up a two-putt birdie on the par-5 ninth. He took on a tough pin at No. 10 for a 6-foot birdie. He drilled a 4-iron to 20 feet for an eagle at No. 11 for his first lead of the week, and he capped off the run with a nifty pitch from behind the green on the reachable par-4 12th for birdie.
Westwood was a hard-luck runner-up for the second straight week — to Bryson DeChambeau at Bay Hill, to Thomas at The Players, two major champions who were born in 1993, the year the 47-year-old Westwood turned pro.
He was tied for the lead until he couldn't match Thomas, playing in the group ahead, on the par-5 16th.
Thomas teed it low and slung a hard, low draw that ran out some 40 yards and set up a 5-wood into 50 feet, which he lagged down for a two-putt birdie. Westwood's 3-iron clipped a tree and dropped into the sand, and that quirky 65-yard shot went into another bunker and forced him to scramble for par.
“When you're in contention, you'd like to win every tournament you're playing in,” Westwood said after a 72. “But I didn't quite have my game today.”
He made birdie on the 18th to finish alone in second. DeChambeau (71) and Brian Harman (69) were another shot behind.
Thomas finished at 14-under 274. He was outside the cut line after nine holes Friday, made it with two shots to spare and then tied The Players Championship record with a 12-under 132 weekend.
Thomas still had one more shot before he was in the clear. He took on the water framing the left side of the 18th fairway, the ball moving right-to-left and bouncing straight off the crown of the first cut, safely in the fairway. Only when he saw it on land did Thomas twirl his club, pulling his cap over his face and wiping his brow.
“I've seen some crazy stuff happen on TV in the past, and I'm glad to be on this side of it,” he said.
All the crazy stuff came early.
DeChambeau topped a hybrid on the par-4 fourth hole that went only about 140 yards until it plunked into the water.
“Dude! I don’t know what happened!” he said to his caddie. “I’ve never done that before.”
From 237 yards on a forward tee to a green protected by water, he hit a slice with a 4-iron that landed some 40 yards right of the green.
“Oh my gosh! What is going on?” DeChambeau said.
He made double bogey and was scratching the rest of the way to stay in the game. He still had a chance with an eagle on the 16th hole to get within two, but when Thomas made par on the 17th, his chances were about over.
Westwood hit his tee shot into the water on the fourth hole and had to make an 8-footer to save bogey. He hit his approach out of the pine straw that clipped two branches and found water on the par-5 second hole to make bogey. But he was never far away from the lead, and Westwood regained a share of the lead with an 8-foot birdie putt on the 14th.
His hopes ended with a three-putt bogey on the par-3 17th.
Thomas won $2.7 million from the $15 million purse, and he found some peace between the ears that required talking to plenty of people and pouring out some of his emotions. He said he was in a good place when he teed off, and he felt even better when he was posing with the trophy.