MIAMI, March 17 — Third-ranked Justin Thomas outdueled Lee Westwood down the stretch Sunday to capture the Players Championship, taking his 14th US PGA title by matching the best 36-hole comeback in tournament history.
The 27-year-old American overtook England’s Westwood on the back nine with a mid-round run of three birdies and an eagle and added a crucial birdie at the par-5 16th for a one-stroke victory and his first Players crown.
“I’m so happy to be a Players champion,” Thomas said. “Probably one of the best rounds of my life tee to green.”
Thomas, the 2017 PGA Championship winner, hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation firing a four-under par 68 to finish 72 holes on 14-under 274 at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
“I was able to play beautifully, make some good shots and some nice putts,” Thomas said. “I was fortunate to hit it well enough that a lot of my birdies were low stress.”
Westwood, 47, closed with a 15-foot birdie putt to finish second for the second consecutive week with US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau and fellow American Brian Harman sharing third on 276.
“I didn’t feel like my legs were working properly. Lethargic really. I paid the penalty for it,” Westwood said.
“What I was pleased with was how I battled it out with not much game that I had today. I kept myself in there and gave myself a chance. Justin just didn’t make any mistakes.”
After the week’s low round with a 64 on Saturday, Thomas equaled the lowest 36-hole close in Players history, rallying from seven strokes down at the midway mark to match the best two-round victory fightback in event history.
“This win was huge,” Thomas said. “I’m really proud of how well I played.”
Thomas joined Tiger Woods, Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus as the only players with 14 PGA wins before age 28 and was excited to do it before a limited number of spectators.
“It’s hard to put into words. It has been just crazy, everything we’ve been through since the Players last year,” Thomas said. “To do it in front of fans was incredible.
“This was a day I’ll never forget.”
Thomas battled controversy earlier this year, apologizing for using a homophobic slur that TV microphones picked up at January’s Tournament of Champions, one that cost him a Ralph Lauren sponsorship. But he praised his team of friends and family for helping him navigate tough times.
“When you’re in a tough place mentally or don’t feel as great, to have a support system like that is huge,” he said.
Thomas said he had gotten some advice from 15-time major winner Tiger Woods, still recovering from injuries received in a car crash, saying, “I was replaying a lot of what he told me in my head.”
‘I know he’s watching’
Thomas was in tears when recalling his grandfather Paul, who died last month at age 89, saying, “I wish I could talk to him. I know he’s watching.”
After seven opening pars and a bogey at the eighth, Thomas had a tap-in birdie at nine, a six-foot birdie putt at 10 and rolled in an eagle putt from just inside 20 feet at the par-5 11th to seize the lead.
Thomas drove over the 12th green and pitched back inches from the cup for a tap-in birdie to stretch his margin.
But Thomas had his shortest missed putt of the season from just inside three feet to bogey the par-4 14th and Westwood sank an eight-foot birdie putt at the 13th to share the lead.
Thomas responded by sinking a birdie putt from just inside three feet at the par-5 16th to regain the lead. After both hit tense five-foot par putts, Westwood missed a seven-foot par attempt on the famed island green at the par-3 17th to fall two back, his closing birdie too little too late.
“It proves I can still contend with these young lads out here,” Westwood said. “I can still give myself a chance come a Sunday.”
Westwood, ranked 31st, has 44 wins worldwide but has not won a US PGA event since the 2010 St. Jude Classic.
Sixth-ranked Bryson DeChambeau fired a 71 but dropped back early with a double bogey at the fourth. — AFP