PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The final round still loomed as the Saturday afternoon sun set on TPC Sawgrass and the primary characters in the pending drama proved to be prophetic.
Lee Westwood, who took a two-shot lead over Bryson DeChambeau into the final round: “This is one of the toughest golf courses to front-run on. It’s easy to lose your mind out there and lose perspective and the situation get out of control on yourself. People can come from behind.’’
Justin Thomas, who began Sunday’s final round three shots out of the lead: “It’s a Sunday of a Players. It’s a huge event and nerves are going to be there. It’s a tournament I’d like to be a champion of. I feel like I will win it, hopefully multiple times.’’
Thomas did just that on Sunday.
He got his first.
And he did it by boat-racing the best field in golf with a 4-under-par 68 that was fueled by a dizzying 5-under-par run through Nos. 9 through 12 that turned the tournament upside down and gave him that first Players Championship title he spoke of craving.
Thomas, 27, overcame Westwood, who finished one shot back at 13-under after shooting a dodgy final-round 72. DeChambeau (71) and Brian Harman (69) finished two back at 12-under.
“I fought so hard today,’’ an emotional Thomas said afterward. “I stayed really patient. Probably one of the best rounds of my life, tee to green.’’
Jim “Bones’’ Mackay, the NBC on-course reporter, called Thomas’ ball striking “Hogan-esque.’’
It was the 14th career victory for Thomas and his first this year. And it could not have come at a more crucial time for him considering the turmoil his life had spun into since that incident at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January when a TV boom microphone picked up Thomas chastising himself with a homophobic slur after missing a short putt.
The aftermath of that incident has been sobering for Thomas, whose biggest sponsor, Ralph Lauren, immediately disassociated itself from him. That was followed by a public skewering on social media.
Add to that a much worse and powerful event for him, which was the loss of his grandfather, Paul, and it had to be virtually impossible for Thomas to perform at a high level.
Then this week arrived. More specifically, this weekend.
Thomas shot a tournament-low 8-under-par 64 in Saturday’s third round to vault himself into contention for Sunday. Then he overtook Westwood on Sunday and finished the job at the end. He tied the tournament record for lowest score on the final 36 holes at 12-under par.
“We’ve been through a lot the last couple months, and losing my dad, I think, impacted Justin quite a bit,’’ Thomas’ father and coach, Mike, said. “He just kind of has not been himself the last month or so, which is understandable. He kept getting better every day this week.
“I told him [Sunday] when it was over that looked like a round of the old Justin Thomas, just ball striking the heck out of it. That’s kind of what’s been missing.’’
What’s truly been missing for Thomas is any element of positivity, something to smile about, after losing his grandfather, the fallout from the Sony slur and seeing his close friend, Tiger Woods, nearly lose his life in that car crash last month.
“It’s been a crappy couple of months,’’ Thomas said. “I’ve had stuff happen in my life I never thought I’d have happen. 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. It tested me mentally, physically, emotionally.
“I had to figure it out and had to get over it, and if I wanted to come to these tournaments and have a chance to win then I needed to suck it up and get over it.’’
Thomas referenced that he “reached out to people’’ to discuss his troubles.
“I’m not embarrassed to say that I reached out to talk to people to kind of let my feelings out and just discuss stuff with them,’’ he said. “I think it’s something, especially at our level, a lot of people probably think that they’re bigger and better than that. But some of the thoughts and things I was feeling, it wasn’t fair to myself, and I needed to do something.’’
Thomas said his golf was suffering and everything was “kind of snowballing.’’
That snowball of negative energy was melted in the 80-degree Florida heat on Sunday. That spectacular four-hole, 5-under-par stretch did that. So, too, did carving up the Stadium Course par-5s in 14-under par for the week.
“I kept telling everyone on my team or my family I’m ready for something good to happen this year,’’ Thomas said. “It’s been a pretty bad year and a lot of bad things have happened, but that’s life. I’d say this qualifies as something good.’’