Back nine surge delivers Justin Thomas Players Championship title

As other golfers struggle to go low in final round, Thomas dominant in closing stretch

Justin Thomas of the United States celebrates with Doug Ghim after finishing on his way to winning on the 18th green during the final round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on March 14, 2021 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) (Mike Ehrmann, 2021 Getty Images)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Justin Thomas stared down the back nine of the Stadium Course on Sunday needing to play the best golf of his career to win.

As the best field in golf struggled to go low in Sunday conditions, Thomas was poised, patient and determined, all the marks of a champion — The Players champion

Thomas navigated the closing nine at the Stadium Course in spectacular fashion, storming back to win The Players Championship on a postcard perfect Sunday. Thomas had a final-round 68 and finished 14-under 274 to win by a stroke over Lee Westwood.

Sea Island, Ga. Resident Brian Harman and Bryson DeChambeau finished two strokes back.

Thomas’ finish was spectacular. He made the turn clustered in a group of nearly a dozen golfers within a couple strokes of the lead, but went birdie-eagle-birdie to start the back, shot up the leaderboard and stayed steady at the end to win it.

“I’ll tell you what, it’s a lot harder than when there weren’t fans here, that’s for sure. I’m so happy they’re back and I’m so happy to be The Players champion,” Thomas said.

“I fought so hard today. I stayed really patient. Probably one of the best rounds of my life, tee to green, total control of the ball, and really was hitting a lot of good putts, just wasn’t holing anything. And I stayed patient and stayed patient, and I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff on TV happen in the past on this back nine, so I was glad to be on the better side of it this year.”

The return to golf a year after the pandemic scrapped the tournament and stopped the sports world in its tracks was about as perfect as it could have been. Even though the crowd was minimal due to attendance restrictions, and there was no Tiger Woods, The Players had everything else.

The weather was mild and beautiful all week long. A blockbuster final group pairing of and DeChambeau had just the right amount drama. DeChambeau nipped Westwood by a stroke last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, parring the final hole at Bay Hill to win.

And the theater Sunday was ripe for a leaderboard that saw 11 golfers within two strokes of the lead as the final group hit the back nine.

But it was Thomas who closed.

And not just Sunday, either. His final two rounds of 12-under par tied for the lowest final two rounds in Players history.

The win was the 14th of Thomas’ career and it comes before his 28th birthday.

The only three golfers since 1960 to hit that number before turning 28 — Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Not even his first miss of a green in regulation on 18 could derail Thomas. He calmly pitched to 2 and a half feet from the pin and tapped in for par.

Thomas’ first two rounds were mundane. He needed a bit of a rally on Friday to make the cut, although a birdie-birdie finish sent him to the weekend 2-under.

But Saturday and Sunday, a different Thomas emerged.

He had a third-round 64 to put himself in the conversation on Sunday, three strokes behind leader Westwood. Thomas grinded his way through the front nine in the final round and made the turn at even. The back nine was a clinic.

He went birdie-eagle-birdie to start, with his 19-foot putt on the par-5 No. 11 drawing one of the most emphatic responses from the crowd in the final round.

Thomas said that even though Woods wasn’t playing this week as he recovers from injuries sustained in a car accident, Tiger stayed in touch and gave him plenty of advice.

“I mean, just to stay patient. I mean, it’s been a lot of stuff, but it’s between us, and it’s great,” Thomas said of the conversations between he and Woods.

“He’s so nice to myself and Bryson and so many guys out here that if you would have told us when we were 15, 20 years old that Tiger Woods was texting us the night before we have a chance to win the tournament trying to inspire us, that’s pretty cool.”

By that point of Thomas’ surge on the back, contenders had begun falling off.

The final round rematch of Westwood and DeChambeau fizzled out early Sunday, done in by a tough No. 4 for both golfers.

Westwood put his tee shot on the hole into the water and wound up having a 7-foot putt for bogey. He settled for an even-par 72 on championship Sunday, a score that he said he had to battle and grind out.

“I felt like I put maximum effort in today. I was pleased with the way I ground it out. Like I said, I didn’t really have the strike. I didn’t really have much direction. I was on the edge all the time, it felt like,” Westwood said. “I wasn’t as good as I played the first three days, but you have days like that, where you just have to grind it out. It’s a battle sometimes. That’s championship golf. If you don’t like it, you’re in the wrong job.”

DeChambeau’s day went south on No. 4, too.

He knuckled his drive and it found the water, too. DeChambeau’s drop went way right and sailed into the pine straw, courtesy of a 4-iron that he broke on the shot, he said. DeChambeau had to play it safe in getting it on the green and wound up doubling the hole. He battled for a 1-under 71.

“Hat’s office to J.T. for playing the way he did on that back nine. It was very impressive,” DeChambeau said. “That’s why he’s one of the best players in the world and will continue to be one of the best players in the world for a long time.”

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.