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Justin Thomas wins the PGA in a playoff after Mito Pereira’s nightmare at 18

Justin Thomas holds up the Wanamaker Trophy after Sunday's win at Southern Hills. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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TULSA — It seemed clear by midafternoon Sunday that the 104th PGA Championship would go to one of four young guys you probably wouldn’t recognize if they showed up at your front door, trying to sell you a vacuum cleaner.

How odd, then, that the gap between those four and the rest would erode when the familiar face of Justin Thomas came galloping out of the leader board yonder. How odd that Thomas, a player many golf intellectuals thought would win here, would win here in a three-hole playoff over Will Zalatoris long after those same geeks must have concluded he wouldn’t, long after an early-round deficit of a hopeless eight shots. And how oddest that, along the way, one of those four little-known youths, Mito Pereira of Chile, would stagger from a three-shot lead into both a creek and the haunted halls of golf lore.

At some points, Thomas must have assumed he wasn’t winning.

“For sure,” he said.

How odd.

“I wasn’t looking at leader boards today,” he said. “I was just trying to play golf.”

No wonder that when he plunked in his clinching 14-inch par putt at No. 18 in the playoff, he sort of laughed.

When the geeks sit around years from now and yak about a daydream Sunday with soft clouds yielding to sunshine at Southern Hills, they might not remember how Thomas played the last 12 holes of Round 4 in 4 under par — four birdies, eight pars — to reach 5 under and the cusp of the lead, how his 67 made him the lone player in the last seven groups to break par. They might not remember how the face of the 29-year-old took on a look of charismatic certainty as he began the flawless playoff of birdie-birdie-par that would bring him a second major and a second PGA title. They might not pinpoint that Thomas’s clamber from seven shots down at dawn tied him for the PGA Championship record alongside John Mahaffey in 1978 at Oakmont.

What they absolutely will remember, human nature being human nature, is how the 100th-ranked player in the world (Pereira) reached the 72nd hole (No. 18) with a one-shot lead (at 6 under) and an absence of fear (driver in hands). They will remember how Pereira’s drive did look sick as it strayed to the right, hopped up over an embankment beside the creek and plunged right in.

They will remember Pereira’s score from there — a REM nightmare of a double bogey that featured a chip from off one side of the green to off another side — and how that dropped him from 6 under to 4 under, left Thomas and Zalatoris to square off from 5 under and put Pereira among golf’s rich volumes of horror stories.

Analysis: Justin Thomas defeats Will Zalatoris in playoff to win PGA Championship

The man led by three at 9 under at the outset and held on gamely, if shakily and with some par saves. He would see a 12-foot putt for birdie on No. 17 stop right at the door of the cup and a two-shot lead, as if he would not have enough memories to howl from the corner of his brain. Then he had his march to No. 18, an unlikely leader from an unlikely golfing country seeking a par at the toughest hole on the course through four days.

Then he had something only a psychopath could cheer.

“I mean, I wish I could do it again,” he said thereafter.

For so long, they had been up ahead: Mito and Will and Cameron and Matt. Their ages were 27, 25, 25 and 27, deepening a recent PGA Tour theme of youth growing up fast and ready to behave like the seasoned. Befitting a facial-hair era, two had beards, the other two stubble. Two of them (Zalatoris and Cameron Young) went to Wake Forest together. At around 3 in the afternoon, they had not so much broken away as others had broken beneath them, and there figured to be a winner coming from Pereira at 9 under, Zalatoris at 7 under or Young and Englishman Matt Fitzpatrick at 6 under. Occasional golf observers and other channel-flippers might have been getting to know them.

Hail to the lads.

Well, how absurd that the eventual top score would turn out to be 5 under. Pereira, in a lofty spot for just his second major, bogeyed Nos. 3, 7, 8, 12 and 14 but birdied Nos. 5 and 13 as he made his way toward No. 18, toward 75 and toward unforgettable. Young, the New Yorker whose ranking has blossomed from 1,510th two years ago to 264th one year ago to 38th by Sunday, looked contentious until his three-putt from 30 feet on No. 16 wreaked a double bogey. He finished in a tie for third at 4 under and said, “We had a good time for the most part.” Fitzpatrick, by far the most experienced in his 28th major with one top-10, faded off eventually with a 73 built on three back-nine bogeys. He finished in a tie for fifth at 3 under and said, “It’s tough obviously to take.”

At the PGA, Mito Pereira joins the hall of 72nd-hole horrors

Zalatoris, already a budding presence with four major top-10s in eight tries and a second-place finish at his first Masters in 2021, took the nutty adventure route. “I fought like crazy all day,” he said. He spent ample time at a cart path in front of a thick, handsome bush on No. 6 and down by a creek in tall grass on No. 12. He looked in, and then he looked out, and then he looked in when he made two steely putts, a birdie of just under eight feet on No. 17 and a par of just over eight feet on No. 18.

With that, he was at 5 under, and then with Pereira’s falter, he had a playoff berth and momentum. Yet his momentum was nothing like the long-locomotive style of Thomas, who won the 2017 PGA at Quail Hollow in Charlotte via a more conventional comeback, that from an opening 73 on Thursday to three rounds in the 60s.

“I was very calm today,” Thomas said. “I was very calm in the playoff. I was calm the last couple [of regulation] holes. I felt like I could do what I wanted to do, which is really all I could ask for.” Certain shots gave him “a full-body-chills type of feeling,” such as his 8-iron to the green on the harsh No. 18 in regulation that gave him a birdie chance he couldn’t quite convert.

He had begun going boisterous from way back mid-round when he played as a disappointing afterthought, following the bummer of a 74 on Saturday that led to a helpful pep talk from caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay. He birdied No. 9 with an 11-footer with nobody really looking. His chip from 64 feet on No. 11 went slamming into the hole, bringing him to 3 under. His 17-footer on No. 12 took a merry little trip around the lip before complying. He birdied No. 17 to boot and got to 5 under without any holes left for catching Pereira.

Then the ghouls of golf did speak — memorably.

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