4-3-2-1 from the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational
Justin Thomas made six birdies in the final round and rallied from four shots back to win his first ever World Golf Championship, winning the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
Thomas and Brooks Koepka broke out from a crowded leaderboard and stood tied at the top for much of the back 9. The turning point came on the par-5 16th hole when Justin Thomas birdied after sticking a wedge shot close while Koepka made a mess of his chip shot and bogeyed. Koepka birdied 17 to pull back within one, but after a poor drive in the water on 18, Thomas was able to cruise to victory.
The win makes 27-year old Justin Thomas the third youngest player to get to 13 wins. We look at four questions from the St. Jude Invitational and the game of golf and begin looking forward to the PGA Championship next week.
“Fore” Questions of the Week
1. Why is Justin Thomas’ Triumph at the WGC More than Just a Win?
One month ago, we talked about how Justin Thomas is on the edge of becoming an elite player. This win makes him just that: elite. A world golf championship to go along with his 2017 PGA Championship and his 12 other PGA Tour wins means a lot. The way he won the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational should mean even more. He began the day four shots back and shot up the leaderboard throughout the day and then outlasted one of the greatest closers and big game players in the game, Brooks Koepka.
His 65 came with a bit of luck; his drive on 15 was one of the best breaks of the week when his tee shot went left of the water and hit the cart path and bounced past the trees, landing just 60 yards from the hole with a perfect lie. He was able to capitalize on the break and make birdie, tying him with Koepka for the lead. He then got another fortunate break on the par-5 16th that led to a birdie while Koepka crumbled with a poor 3rd shot on that same hole and ended up with a 6. Koepka was able to pull back within one after a 40-foot birdie on the 17th, and further drama ensued when Thomas hit his second on 18 far right of the green. However, Thomas played his chip shot on 18 to perfection after Koepka drove his tee shot in the water. Thomas parred to secure a three-shot victory.
This is Thomas’ third win of the year and becomes the favorite to win Player of the Year as of now, although a lot can change with two majors in the next six weeks. He goes in as the favorite to win the PGA Championship next week alongside Koepka and is now the new No. 1 player in the world. He is truly on top of the world in the game of golf.
2. Was this a win or a loss for Brooks Koepka?
The last three holes weren’t Koepka-like, that’s for sure, but given the way he was playing coming into the week, this is definitely a win. Koepka didn’t need to necessarily defend his title this week; he needed to regain confidence in himself. He found it with a lot of hard practice that paid off after missing the cut at the 3M Open. This is Koepka’s best finish of the season and undoubtedly makes him a top pick to win his third straight PGA Championship next week in San Francisco.
3. Who Should be the Most Concerned heading into the PGA Championship?
We already outlined last week why Tiger Woods should be concerned so I’m not going to repeat that. But I also think there should be some major concern with Rory McIlroy. Rory has now gone five straight tournaments without a top-10. He’s shown flashes of great play, including a final round 67 on Sunday in Memphis, but has also shown moments of horrible play. There’s no consistency in his game right now at all. While he claims he is close and is just one swing away from getting it all back, seeing is believing. He will need to put in some work like Brooks Koepka did a week ago in preparation for the PGA. The good news is he should have lots of confidence at Harding Park. He won the Match Play Championship there in 2015.
4. Did the USGA Make the Right Move Not Allowing Fans at Winged Foot?
Definitely. The goal back in June was to have a U.S. Open with fans, but given the state of the virus throughout the country right now, leaving things status quo with how they’ve been is the best route. There haven’t been a lot of outbreaks on the PGA Tour and part of that is because we have a social distanced game where fans are not allowed in. So why mess with it? It’s still entertaining to watch on television. Right now, the best way to go is safe, not sorry.
Next year is hopefully a different story. If rumors are true that a vaccine is in the works and could be in place by the 2021 Masters, we should have a major season where we can start to get back to normal.
Three Foods for Thought
1. Harding Park Will Not Be a Picnic
Don’t expect a lot of birdies next week if the weather forecast pans out and the superintendents keep the rough in place. Stiff winds are on their way to San Francisco. It appears the worst of the winds will be in the practice rounds, but 15-20mph breezes are forecast to be present for all four rounds. Combine that with some thick and lush rough and quick greens and scoring should be on the high side for the PGA Championship.
Harding Park is a par-70 layout with two just two par-5s. It’s not an overly long course at just over 7,200 yards that includes two reachable par-4s, but wind can make the course play increasingly tough. It’s not a bomber’s paradise, either. Lots of doglegs will reward the strategic and straight players, not necessarily the long ones.
2. More Big Name Withdrawals at the PGA
Last week, Lee Westwood withdrew from the PGA Championship over travel and COVID-19 concerns. You can go ahead and add major champions Francesco Molinari and Padraig Harrington to the list. Both players joined Westwood announcing their uncomfortability of leaving their families and traveling to the States for the PGA Championship. Also, Branden Grace was diagnosed with the coronavirus while playing at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational and will also be out this week.
The numbers will likely grow by a few more before the start of the week, but thus far, those are some big names that will not be teeing it up at the PGA Championship. My under prediction of 10 withdrawals may be on thin ice.
3. Furyk Wins in Champions Tour Debut
It’s hard to believe Jim Furyk is now 50. While Phil Mickelson has decided to “hit bombs” and hang with the young guys, Furyk went where he felt the money was for him. He made the right move. Furyk closed with a 68 and became the first person since Miguel Angel Jiminez to win his first event on the Champions Tour, winning the Ally Challenge. Among the players that finished second was two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen. Ernie Els finished T27.
Not to be forgotten was the PGA Barracuda Championship which was being played opposite the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. Richie Werenski rallied to win his first ever PGA tournament with a stellar back 9. The Barracuda was for players who did not qualify for the World Golf Championships. It used a stableford scoring system with points given for eagles and birdies. It’s the one tournament where PLUS is a good score.
Two Sleepers Picks for the PGA
1. Christiaan Bezuidenhout
I still haven’t mastered his last name, but Bezuidenhout is one of the South African phenoms coming up through the ranks. A runner-up earlier this year at Dubai, Bezuidenhout had a solid week in Memphis finishing in the top-20. No one should be surprised if he sneaks up on the leaderboard over the weekend.
Harding Park will call for accuracy and consistency, and that defines Streelman’s game. Streelman has four top-10s already this season and is one of the most accurate drivers on the PGA Tour, ranking 25th.
One Final Word
Bring on The PGA!