Justin Thomas put a turbulent two months behind him as he fired a final-round 68 to clinch a one-shot victory over Lee Westwood at TPC Sawgrass.
Thomas charged to the top of the leaderboard when he picked up five shots in a remarkable four-hole spell around the turn, while Westwood and Bryson DeChambeau could not keep the errors at bay throughout an enthralling Sawgrass Sunday.
The Players Champinship
Former world No 1 Thomas came into golf’s “fifth major” short of confidence, admitting the fallout from his use of a homophobic slur during the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January had “taken a toll” on his game, while he has also had to deal with the death of his grandfather last month.
The emotion was palpable after he holed out for par at the last just after Westwood had three-putted the 17th green, safe in the knowledge he would be in possession of the gold trophy unless the Englishman or DeChambeau could hole out from the 72nd fairway.
It was to be another case of “so close, so far” for the 47-year-old Ryder Cup legend, who slept on a two-shot lead overnight following a pair of bogey-free rounds on Friday and Saturday, but his assured long-game deserted him on a fast and firm Stadium Course on day four.
Westwood got off to the ideal start, splitting the first fairway and clipping a sweet iron in close to set up a birdie, but his run of 45 holes without a bogey ended at the next, when he carved a three-wood into the trees before stabbing his escape attempt into water.
He did well to limit the damage to a six, but there was huge drama at the fourth when DeChambeau topped his fairway-wood into water less than 150 yards away, and Westwood came out of his tee-shot and found the lake on the right.
Westwood again salvaged bogey while DeChambeau , who shanked his third deep into the woods, holed from six feet to drop only two shots. And although Westwood had found water twice in three holes, incredibly he remained two strokes clear of the field at the time.
After another mistake at the eighth, Westwood took some momentum into the back nine with a good birdie at the long ninth, just as Thomas was in the midst of his surge into the lead, the former PGA champion following birdies at nine and 10 with a 20-foot putt for eagle at the 11th.
Thomas picked up another shot with an exquisite pitch from over the back of the 12th green, although he then missed from less than three feet to slip back to 13 under at the 14th, a hole Westwood birdied after a stunning 200-yard second from sand to eight feet, the subsequent putt having just enough pace to drop.
Thomas held his composure to lag to within three feet, and the par putt went straight in the middle before he headed off to embrace his family, with tears of joy and relief evident.
To his credit, Westwood earned himself a $1.6m payday when he sent a bold second over the flag and holed from 15 feet for a closing birdie and a round of 72, finishing one ahead of DeChambeau as their “rematch” from Bay Hill was upstaged by the brilliance of Thomas.
DeChambeau’s remarkable topped tee-shot at the fourth was an early setback he struggled to recover from, with his distance and directional control both found wanting for the most part, although he did force his way back into the equation with birdies at 12 and 13 only to err again at the next.
An eagle at the 16th proved too little, too late as he settled for a podium finish on 12 under alongside Brian Harman, who carded three birdies on the back nine in his second 69 of the weekend and was one of a number of players who stayed in touch with the leaders without being able to keep pace with Thomas.
Paul Casey closed with a mixed-bag of a 70, with five birdies offset by three dropped shots on the front nine, and the veteran’s 11 under score tied Talor Gooch (67) for fifth, with Open champion Shane Lowry earning a top-10 finish with a 68 lifting him to nine under.
Halfway leader Sergio Garcia, Matt Fitzpatrick and Jon Rahm were also among the contenders at various stages of the day, but their challenges faded down the stretch, although their eight under totals were enough to secure valuable top-10 finishes.
The Players Championship
March 15, 2021, 7:00pm
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