TULSA, Oklahoma — The dominant storyline leading up to the 2022 PGA Championship revolved around Phil Mickelson, who became the oldest major champion last year when he won the event at the age of 50 but chose not to defend his title. Then the focus of the tournament shifted to Tiger Woods, 46, who arrived at Southern Hills Country Club to continue his rousing comeback from injuries sustained in a horrific car crash 15 months ago. But Woods struggled physically and was in last place after three laps. He retired before the final lap on Sunday.
What unfolded instead on the final day of the PGA Championship was a look at elite men’s golf’s youthful future, not its aging past. On a nervous, upside-down afternoon in eastern Oklahoma, another dramatic showdown ensued between the scintillating, hard-wielding 20-year-olds who passed the game.
In a tight three-hole playoff after the fourth round ended in an 18-hole tie, 29-year-old Justin Thomas held off 25-year-old rising star Will Zalatoris to win his second PGA championship. The last four major golf championship winners, Thomas; Scottie Scheffler at the Masters; Collin Morikawa at the British Open; and Jon Rahm, the reigning US Open champion, are in their 20s.
Even in defeat, Zlatoris gave a brief laugh as he realized how quickly his generation had become dominant.
“Sometimes I have to control myself because I feel like I’m going to play junior golf and collegiate golf again,” Zlatoris said, mentioning his longtime rivals Scheffler, Thomas and Mito Pereira, 27, who have been in the lead for most of the time fourth round. “We’ve been playing together for almost 10 years. Now we are at the highest level of golf.”
Thomas, who went seven strokes off the lead, had no intention of celebrating a win after his first eight holes on Sunday when he was one over par. His final round rally was the third greatest comeback in major championship history.
“It was definitely a bizarre day,” said Thomas, who also won the 2017 PGA Championship. “But I said in a press conference before the first lap that there was no guarantee of a lead here – too much wind and too many scary holes.”
Pereira, the third-round leader, seemed poised to become the first Chilean golfer to win a major golf championship. Going to the 18th tee on Sunday night he was playing in the last group and needed just a par to clinch the title.
But Pereira, playing in his second major championship, clipped his tee shot into a small creek off the fairway. After a penalty drop out of the water, Pereira’s approach shot found the thick rough next to the green. From there, his chip rolled well across the green until it came to rest in the rim on the opposite side of the green. Pereira made a double bogey and tied for third place with American Cameron Young, a collegiate teammate of Zulatoris’ when they were at Wake Forest.
“It’s such a stressful situation,” Pereira said of the atmosphere on the 18th tee. “But I wasn’t any more nervous today than with other shooters. I didn’t even think about the water. But you know, I wish I could do it again.”
The playoffs ended a streak of 19 consecutive majors stretching back to the 2017 Masters that did not require additional holes to decide the outcome.
Thomas and Zalatoris started the playoff with birdies on the first hole, the 13th hole. On the achievable par-4, 302-yard 17th hole, Thomas drove the green and had a long putt for Eagle that came 3 feet short. Zlatoris’ drive on the 17th hole was right off the green and his flop shot stopped 8 feet from the hole. His birdie putt slipped wide and Zatoris made par.
With a chance to take advantage, Thomas rattled in his birdie putt for a one-stroke advantage that went into the third playoff hole, the 18th.
Both golfers reached the 18th green in two shots. Zatoris failed to cover a birdie putt, and Thomas needed just two putts for a par that earned the championship title.
For Zalatoris it was his last close goal in a Major. He finished second at last year’s Masters and finished sixth at that event last month. He finished eighth at the 2021 PGA Championship and sixth at the 2020 US Open.
But on Sunday, after an even front nine, Zalatoris was hampered by poor putting that has plagued him all season. He bogeyed holes 12 and 16 but rallied by emptying an 8-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole. He also sank a 10-foot putt to save par on the last hole, shot 71 for the final round, and finished five under par overall. At the time, however, it didn’t seem enough to catch Pereira.
Thomas most likely ended his lap with the same feeling. After a rocky start to the day, he screwed on the ninth hole and had a par on the 10th. Thomas then sank a 64-foot putt just before the 11th hole for another birdie. On the par 4, he sank an 18-foot birdie putt. Thomas missed consecutive manageable birdie putts on holes 13 and 14, but then squirted a shot from a green bunker on the par 4 hole 17 to within 3 feet, a distance he successfully negotiated for his fifth birdie of the day. That would put him within a shot of Pereira with a hole to play. A brilliant drive and bold approach shot to the elevated 18th green ended 11 feet from the hole, but Thomas’ putt slipped past the right edge for a par and a score of 67.
“I was very calm in the playoff and very calm in the last few holes before the playoff, which helped a lot,” Thomas said. “I was nervous, but it was a different kind of nervousness that maybe comes with the experience. It was different than trying to win my first major in 2017. Whatever it was, it felt right.
“To execute some of those hard shots when it’s really necessary, it was a full-body shiver.”