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99thPGA TOURNAMENT: JUST’IN MAJORS THOMAS

Truly typical to golf, tour professionals tell timeless tales of trysts with destiny, their trials and tribulations tied to tough tests, over trying terrains and temperatures, terminating in terrible tragedies and terrific triumphs, specially on finishing holes on final day Sunday, By Sushil Kumar.

ALSO READ: PGA SPIETH’S QUEST FOR HOLY GRAIL OF GOLF AT QUAIL HOLLOW

Though called as the home stretch, it can make one feel quite homeless at the end of the day– ask Jean van de Velde after suffering collapse , figuratively and literally, in the Open in 1999). History is also replete with come from behind victories (like Paul Lawrie overcoming ten shots difference in the same Open of 1999 and Faldo overcoming winning over Greg Norman who tragically surrendered six stroke lead in 1996 Masters.

Keeping with this tradition, Justin Thomas’s victory in PGA 2017 at Quail Hollow Course at Charlotte, NC, will go down as one of the most exciting spectacle; it showed a seesaw swing in scores and a shootout between several players – five even sharing lead at different times during homeward stretch – that ceased only at 72th hole, with three-day leader Kevin Kisner killing his chances on home stretch and new wannabe’s wish to win Wannamaker trophy coming true. It was a perfect setting for Thomas (son of tour pro like Davis Love III) to win the PGA tournament that was started by/for tour professionals 99 years ago and three generation Thomas lineage would be surely there next year for the impending century celebrations . His victory was truly metaphorical as he carries the genes of third generation PGA professionals and hopefully his kid would follow that into fourth generation.

What helped Thomas (like it did his pal Spieth at the Royal Birkdale to join golf royalty) was falling of putts on the final day. There were other symbolic similarities: remember how Spieth almost aced fourteenth hole immediately after near annihilation on the previous hole that symbolically signaled his turnaround to play last five holes under five and win; Thomas’s luck also turned when his wayward drive on tenth was heading into woods but was thrown back into play by the branches and then rested for eternal seconds on the cup’s cusp before deciding to fall ; that changed and charged his self-belief that lady luck laid it for him to win. This led to his chipping for birdie on the thirteenth hole and going for the broke and birdie on the risk laden seventeenth (where all players avoided attacking the pin to play percentage golf by going for the right safe side).

The other story didn’t live up to its top billing and wish fulfilling exultant end; Spieth was scripted to play the role of player who captured the career in Grand Slam Slam before the age of 24- beating record of Tiger Woods ; that opportunity would not arise again for him in history no matter what he achieves from now on. The main story evaporated even before the halfway mark when it became evident that Spieth will miss it by a mile- even before his trysts in treading the Green Mile were to begin on the two final rounds.

Spieth fell way too far off the leaderboard on first three days and would have had to do what Paul Lawrie did in the Open 1999- overcoming ten stroke deficit on the final day to win the Open which is equally famous for unbelievable meltdown by the Frenchman Jean Van de Velde who lost five stroke lead of final day and faded away forever- forever to be remembered infamously.

Augusta’s middle holes on home stretch are truly testing, whereas at Quail Hollow its final three holes where a virtual victor can be vanquished- not by an opponent but by the course itself. Great golfers like Nicklaus and Woods truly represented the core philosophy of playing, irrespective of club or championship golf- that of overcoming the challenge posed by a course.

Quail Hollow and Augusta not only share the same sand in their bunkers but also how the player’s charges on back nine on final day can make or mar a champion and always throws a drama and dramatic twists that turn into tales told for eternity. Who can forget the charge of Nicklaus (1986) or Nick Faldo in the Masters and meltdown of Spieth last year or Scott Hoch missing two foot putt to miss winning the Masters in 1989.

All through this year, Hideki Matsuyama has played and lived life mirroring Dylan’s lauded lyrics ‘Knock ‘in Knock ‘in on Heavens door (read Major instead of Heavens though for him both tantamount to same); he led strongly after shooting 64 on second day and hovered over leaderboard till final holes but failed with correct combination to key in to victory on final day. He has attributed the faltering to pressure of entire nation’s wish for him to go beyond Isao Aoki’s runner up finish behind Nicklaus in 1980 US Open.

Matsuyama wasn’t the only victim of stage fright of staging spectacle on a Major stage as he hit only two fairways in front nine on final day; it also felled Kisner who played faultlessly over three days only to falter on the final stretch.

On Sunday, stress not only swung swings but also fate and fortunes so much over back nine specially over last three holes deceptively described as the Green Mile – statistically rated as the most brutal on the PGA tour; ideally, it should have been called the Red Mile signifying warning that it can reduce red numbers and leave players red in the face like it did Jason Day on Saturday when he quadruple bogeyed 18th.

It was a déjà vu review of last four holes at the Royal Birkdale which were vanquished by a class act of Spieth. Even at PGA, players like Patrick Reed (clocked seven birdies and one bogey from seventh hole onwards); Oosthuizen and Ricky Fowler gave final charges by throwing caution to winds and almost conquering the Green Mile by posting their best red numbers and came within touching distance of the Wannamaker trophy Reed ended joint runner up with Molinari and Fowler finished tied fifth. Matsuyama got badly stung on Sunday and befell by lurking dangers of Green Mile. Kisner played perfectly on third day touching double digits red numbers but double bogey on 16th hole derailed him and next day it was the seventeenth that spoiled his chances for good.

In contrast, Thomas rode one stroke cushion on same stretch and converted that to two strokes lead on seventeenth and despite hiccups on eighteenth composed himself to calmly play to conquer , without much ado but leaving others a lot to do.

Thomas’s inspiration to win Major got life after watching Tiger Woods win PGA in 2000 in his hometown Kentucky. The main reason behind Thomas winning the Wannamaker Trophy is the way he played the Green Mile over four days –by shooting only one over.

Thomas had already won three times this year and was considered a bit cocky(like Patrick Reed) when he told Nick Faldo during interview that he was now fit to win Masters this year. At one stage it seemed that either a Japanese or an Italian (Francesco Molinari) could make history by winning a Major but Thomas turned the tables – much like Spieth did in the Open this year-by breaking from the pack just before the finishing line a la legendary Usain Bolt brand.

Sometimes momentary joy inspires one to achieve the impossible. Take how David Duval’ s momentary cuddling of the Claret jug just won by Tiger while on flight across Atlantic motivated him to win the Open next year (2001). Just recall how Thomas transmitted on social media selfies of Spieth and him taking swigs from Claret jug after former won this year. Am sure, this would have majorly motivated him not to miss winning Major and lo and behold he did it within a fortnight and was welcomed on the 72th hole in bear bug by Spieth saying’ awesome dude’.

Perhaps Thomas learnt how the Green Mile can be conquered by viewing tape of Graham Delaet brilliant run on the third day when he notched six under score in last five holes. Perhaps, Fowler and he also watched together how to negotiate after Fowler’s nightmare when he lost four strokes on the third day; lessons and dissectional discussions may have surely helped both in avoiding mistakes on the fourth day.

Thomas prayers to possibly St. Thomas was answered when his drive on tenth was flying beyond fairway tree but hit the branch and bounced back to save par. This divine help must have made Thomas believe that golfing gods were on his side and backed by this belief he continued his march. This boosted his confidence so much he attacked the pin on 17th hole like few before him as most played percentage golf by landing on the fat of the green -recommended by great Nicklaus – i.e. right side of green to avoid water.

We should also remember that Thomas shares the record of shooting lowest score of 59 in single round (next only to Furyk’s 58 in Travelers Championship in 2016) that he scored in Hawaii (only ten pros have scored below 60 round in history).

Actually, the drama in PGA was a replay of the Open. Green Mile’s last three holes’ challenge was closely comparable to closing four holes at the Royal Birkdale (refer my article on the Open) with a difference, that in the former, the contest was between Kuchar and Spieth, whereas at Quail Hollow the shootout was between half a dozen players till Thomas separated himself by two strokes on seventeenth, while others shot themselves in foot and landed in ketchup while playing catch cup.

Matsuyama is on threshold of many milestones: his work ethic equivalence will soon overtake two decades old story of Vijay Singh making him as hardest working golfer on Tour; his intensity to win is backed by samurai like spirit in mastering the swinging of clubs (not swords); and mostly plays in silence on course except for occasional exchange with caddy. One wonders why despite possessing samurai killer instinct he is still to win a Major. Other Asian players stand accused of lacking that. I think I can find an answer in the Japanese thought itself: he would surely win if he combines the samurai spirit with the famed mind mastery, specially equanimity, of a Zen master! This combination of mind and matter will surely help him to conquer and vanquish. Presently his pursuit of perfection is punctuated by slight discomfort when the ball doesn’t come to rest on intended target. One should remember that golf is about approximation not exactness- ball’s trajectory and touching target will always be approximate and a pro should perfect his craft in converting approximation to maximization – singular reason behind Tiger and Nicklaus’s super successes in winning record Tour titles.

Like Vijay Singh, with whom he shares the tag of the hardest practicing professional, Hideki’s languid gait hides immeasurable intensity in his belly. He does his best to cover his focused gaze under wrap-around Oakleys, yet one can see disturbance beneath the still waters when after hitting a shot he demonstrates immediate disgust giving impression of a mishit. But then one sees that his shot still stays in fairway or greens though he may have missed a visualized shot. It indicates the high standards he has set for himself.

Much has been made of his practice ethic matching Vijay Singh’s. It is evident that Asian golfers have to make up deficiencies in physical stature that affects physics and planes of swing; after all, only few short players like Gary Players, Lee Trevino and Ian Woosnam have made names in Majors. Asian players compensate for the limitations of physical and physics by adding regimens of Yoga and meditation.

Though Spieth and Stenson didn’t seriously contend after 36 holes, one still saw their split mirror images treading the course: the physical appearance, and general demeanour specially the icy stare, faint smile of Stroud was such that one had to look again to check whether it was Stenson straddling the course ; there was uncanny similarity in physical structure and demeanour of both Kisner and Justin Thomas with Jordan Spieth that one couldn’t distinguish the difference in longshots.; it seems that Thomas and Spieth togetherness in growing up years is showing in Thomas’s putting touch , particularly the exultation when they drop .

Fowler continued to show brilliant shot making skills interspersed by high risk shots , like one on 17th on third day when ball went into water creating ripples that crippled his chances ; he went from five under to fall asunder with a bogey, double bogey, bogey over Green Mile. But on the fourth day , Fowler almost repeated his stupendous march on back nine when he won Player Championships except that he couldn’t go red numbers in the Green Mile , unlike at Players .

On the third day, Jason Day’s tremendous talent was on full display when he steadily climbed on leaderboard, but then fell off with equal speed and repeated similar play on the fourth day to fall behind.

It seemed that Thomas had borrowed the Midas touch from his pal Spieth: shown in superb chip on 13th hole and sinking putts of 38 feet on 9th, 15 feet on 17th and when most putts of others kissed the edges and missed, his putt on tenth took a long embrace and fell in after more than ten seconds. His putting success was 30 % against 13 % for the rest players and didn’t three putt all through. Matsuyama had 24% success rate whereas Rory McKlroy had only 3% success rate. Thomas shrugged his shoulders and bowed toughing his cap like Britishers did with Bowler’s hat after lucky drop on tenth hole. Maybe he is Spieth’s alternate in winning at age of 24; he made history instead of Spieth ; so PGA at Quail would have made history one way or the other. Thomas shares another interesting statistic this year with his pal Spieth who also had three wins along with Masters in 2015.

On third day, the hidden risks that could grave injury came to fore when Oosthuizen hurt his wrist while hitting a shot by the hidden roots near the tree trunk. It reminded the similar shots played by Garcia and Tiger Woods with latter also suffering similar pain. Oosthuizen and played fourth round with strapped wrist and still showed brilliant shot making in closing holes and hovered around leader board till Thomas broke from the pack in Green Mile and crossed a Major milestone.

The story of the tournament was Stroud clutching at the straws to stay afloat on the PGA tour just a fortnight back and then won a tournament a week later to enter as the last slot and flirted with victory but finished a creditable ninth and one will see more of him.

It seems that Dustin Johnson hasn’t fully recovered from his back injury suffered just before the Masters. Rory injury list now involves back spasms that were preceded by rib and ankle injuries and looks like will take a long layoff.

Dustin Johnson and Koepka have strong physical games and though they would always hover about leaderboard, it would be rare days when the combination of their strong physical game would synchronize perfectly with mental mechanics to produce results obtained by Tiger and Nicklaus -though they were much better in scrambling shots around and on the greens.

Both Tiger and Nicklaus shared similarities in being strong in length off the tee as well as having magic in approach shots and great touch around and on the greens – much like the great Seve of Spain. Spieth’s game is somewhat in contrast in being not so strong off the tee but sharing similar touch of genius on and around the greens and for these reasons his results would greatly vary depending on the course and weather conditions.

In my predictive analysis written a week ago, though I had overlooked prospect of Justin Thomas but my prediction about Johnson, Koepka, Matsuyama and Spieth were on target specially on Spieth despite his having the best odds of winning. The reasoned analysis can be read here.

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