If there was any question as to who is the hottest player on the PGA Tour right now, Justin Thomas answered it Sunday.
Embroiled in a five-man battle for the championship of the 2018 Honda Classic at PGA National Resort, Thomas birdied the 18th hole to force a playoff with Luke List, then repeated the feat on the first playoff hole for his eighth Tour victory in 31 starts.
“I embrace these situations. I love these situations,” said Thomas, who vaulted over close friend Jordan Spieth to the No. 3 ranking in the world, behind only Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm. “There’s a lot of great people I had to beat today. It was very difficult.”
Thomas, who finished third in the Honda two years ago despite being the only player in the field to record all four rounds in the 60s, came on strong after a 2-over 72 on Friday left him two shots off the lead. His 65 Saturday left him one behind List, and he made up that shot with a 2-under 68 Sunday.
Alex Noren, Tommy Fleetwood and Webb Simpson were all in the hunt as the back nine unfolded, but all three made costly mistakes, Noren and Fleetwood carding two bogeys and Simpson three in the last eight holes.
Thomas and List stepped to the 18th tee in regulation knowing a birdie would put them in position to win. Both then played the hole very differently.
Thomas’ drive traveled 342 yards but found deep rough to the right of the fairway. Recognizing he couldn’t carry the remaining 213 yards over water to the green, he laid up to the center of the fairway.
“The rough out here is so penal … it just was never an option to try to go for the green,” he said. “Even if I did, it’s not like I was going to make a three. I was going to make a four at best, and I have a lot of confidence in my wedge game.”
His 116-yard wedge shot stopped 3 feet behind the hole, all but assuring his birdie.
List, meanwhile, found the fairway 224 yards from the hole, giving him a chance to go for the green in two.
“So I hit a 4-iron, really good swing,” he said. “Not sure exactly where it landed over the bunker but it rolled out and I actually had a pretty tricky putt.” He got down in two, also for birdie, and the playoff was on in the fading light.
Back at the No. 18 tee, List hit first and pushed his drive well right of the fairway. This time, he had to lay up, and his second shot went well left, settling near a grandstand 122 yards from the hole.
“I had not made too many bad swings with the driver all week, really,” he said. “It was my only option to kind of blast it over there in the crowd.” After his drop, his approach rolled 23 feet past the pin and he missed the birdie try coming back.
That left Thomas in position to win. His drive had found the short rough right of the fairway, 263 yards out.
“It was a pretty perfect 5-wood number,” he said. “That 5-wood, it’s just been a great, great club for me. I’ve hit some really clutch, great shots with it. I kind of go back and forth between that and a 2-iron, and I wouldn’t have been able to hit that shot with a 2-iron by any means.”
His approach stopped 36 feet behind the hole and his eagle putt ended up 3 feet, 7 inches away. When that putt dropped, he was $1.188 million richer.
Thomas, a native of Louisville who played his college golf at Alabama, said he’s playing better this year than last, when he won five times and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year.
“I feel very confident in every part of my game right now,” he said. “I just have really, really played well for a couple tournaments in a row now, which is great.”
Sunday marked his second win of the year - his first came last October at the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges, where he also won in a playoff, this one over Marc Leishman - and his seventh top-25 in as many starts.
List, who has yet to win on Tour but now has two seconds and a third in the past two seasons, was gratified to have bounced back from consecutive bogeys at Nos. 3 and 4 to shoot 3-under 32 on the back nine.
“My caddy was a huge help, and (I was) just telling myself there was a lot of golf left,” he said. “The back nine, I’m really proud of that effort.”
List, who lived in Jupiter from 2010-13 but now resides in Southern California, was surprisingly upbeat considering what had to rank as a major disappointment.
“I’m really happy off the golf course and have a great support system, my wife and coach and caddie,” he said. “I’m just excited to keep going with this attitude and feel like I’ve got some good stuff in front of me.”