CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Justin Thomas remembers hearing the roar before he ever saw the shot.
He had access to the clubhouse at Valhalla in 2000 as the 7-year-old son of a PGA professional, and the thunder from the gallery reached his ears before the TV showed Tiger Woods making the most important putt of his career at that PGA Championship.
Thomas was barely big enough to dream of playing against the best that day. Now his name is on the same Wanamaker Trophy.
Thomas closed with a 3-under 68 on Sunday at Quail Hollow to emerge from the shadow of Jordan Spieth, his longtime friend, and capture his first major that belonged as much to him as the two generations of PGA professionals that came before him.
“As a kid growing up, you want to win all the majors. You want to win any major,” Thomas said after his two-shot victory. “For me, the PGA definitely had a special place in my heart, and maybe a special drive. It’s just a great win for the family, and it’s a moment we’ll never forget — all of us.”
On this day, the cheers were for him.
They gave him chills when his 8-foot birdie putt teetered on the edge of the 10th hole for 12 seconds before it finally dropped, when he chipped in from 40 feet on the 13th hole to seize control Sunday, and when he fired a 7-iron from 221 yards over the water to a peninsula green that all but sealed the victory.
Even more special than the trophy was seeing his father, Mike Thomas, walk toward with arms wide to wrap around his only son. Thomas is the longtime pro at Harmony Landing outside Louisville, Kentucky and a former board member of the PGA of America. His father, Paul Thomas, is a 60-year PGA pro and the first person his grandson called.
The week began with Spieth’s quest for a career Grand Slam. He was at the 18th green late Sunday afternoon, but only so he could celebrate the moment with Thomas, close friends since they were 14.
“So awesome, dude,” Spieth told him.
Thomas was every bit of that.
With five players still in the mix on the back nine, Thomas surged ahead by chipping in for birdie and holding his nerve down the stretch as his challengers eventually faded, one after another.
Hideki Matsuyama, bidding to become the first player from Japan to win a major, recovered from back-to-back bogeys with birdies on the 14th and 15th holes to get within one shot. But the championship turned on the 16th hole.
Thomas faced a 6-foot par putt to stay at 8 under. Matsuyama caught a good lie over the green and chipped to 5 feet. Thomas wasted no time over the putt and drilled it in the center of cup. Matsuyama missed and was two shots behind.
“The last major of the year, and I was in contention,” said Matsuyama, a runner-up at the U.S. Open. “All I can do is try harder next time.”
Thomas sealed it with that 7-iron on the 17th that was so pure that he let the club twirl through his hands as he watched it clear the water and roll out to 15 feet. The birdie putt curled in and his lead was up to three going to the 18th. A final bogey only affected the score.
Thomas finished at 8-under 276 for his fourth victory of the year.
“I can’t put it into words,” Thomas said about his PGA of America heritage. “I wish my grandpa could be here for it. It’s so special to get it done. I’m glad we have a trophy now.”
Kevin Kisner was the last one who had a chance to catch him. But he three-putted from 100 feet on the 16th for bogey, couldn’t birdie the 17th from long range and hit his second shot into the water and finished with a double bogey. Kisner, the 54-hole leader, played the final three holes in 6 over on the weekend. He closed with a 74.
“That’s not going to be fun to look at,” he said of his weekend finish over the brutal closing stretch at Quail Hollow. “I thought I had to get to 10 (under) starting the day to win, and that was about right. I had every opportunity. I just didn’t finish it off.”
Matsuyama also hit into the water on No. 18 and made bogey for a 72 to finish three back.
Louis Oosthuizen (70), Patrick Reed (67) and Francesco Molinari (67) tied for second, though none had a chance to win playing the 18th. Oosthuizen holed a 50-foot birdie putt on the 18th that made him a runner-up in all four majors.
For Reed, it was his first top 10 in a major.
Thomas began his move with a 35-foot birdie putt on No. 9, and then caught two breaks on the par-5 10th. His tee shot sailed left into a tree and bounced out into the fairway. Then, his 8-foot birdie putt hung on the left edge of the cup until gravity finally took over. The rule allows a player reasonable time to get to the cup, so it dropped well within the 10-second limit.
Thomas gets referred to endlessly as Spieth’s best friend because Spieth, who is 3 months younger, has done so much so quickly. Their friendship dates to France when they represented the U.S. in the Evian Junior Masters. Thomas won that 36-hole event.
Ten years later, they have won consecutive majors and head into the FedEx Cup playoffs battling for PGA Tour player of the year.
Thomas won both Hawaii events at the start of the year, shooting a 59 in the Sony Open and setting the 72-hole record on the PGA Tour. He said then his goals were high. And how are they now?
“Let you know when the year’s over,” he said.