Golf, as they say, is a game of inches. A one-foot putt counts the same as a 300-yard drive, and that one stroke can often make the difference between a winner and an also-ran.
On Sunday, the final day of the Wyndham Championship, on the 18th hole, PGA pro Justin Thomas thought he might make those inches work for him. After shooting a mediocre -2 all afternoon, on the 18th hole, Thomas hit his drive into a bank of trees on the right side of the fairway. A wild second shot carried 153 yards, placing him between the bunkers at the foot of the green. The third shot was the most important, the one that would make all the difference on this day.
He lined it up with an iron, took a tight backswing and popped the ball onto the green, where it bounced once, twice, thrice then dribbled towards the cup, where it struck the pin and lolled to a stop less than a foot from the hole.
He would soon find out how much those few inches cost him.
Early Friday afternoon, on Day 2 of the Wyndham Championship golf tournament, a small coterie of press gathered in the interview space at the Irwin Smallwood Media Center.
It’s a makeshift space, converted inside the Tudor façade of the member gym at Sedgefield Country Club, where the tournament had been held off and on since it began in 1938.
And they gathered to listen to the man for whom the facility has been named.
At 97 years of age, Smallwood — the legendary sports writer and editor of the Greensboro News & Record — hoisted himself into a seat in front of a mic and proceeded to speak of the glory days of the tournament, which he covered for more than 75 years starting in 1947, when he was still in high school. He salted his monologues with stories about Sam Snead and Ed Sullivan, the old days at Starmount and the time he won $7 off Dean Smith on a golf course in Quincy.
He loves the tournament now for what it’s become, he said — an important event at the end of the regular PGA season. But he lamented the old days just a bit.
“In those days,” he said, “we could be friends with the golfers.” Smallwood had personal relationships with many of the game’s most legendary players. Also, he said, as he surveyed the field today, most would not recognize any of the names.
He called it “a lack of star power.”
Perhaps the biggest name in the tourney is Justin Thomas, a former No. 1 player in the world from Louisville with 15 PGA tournament wins to his name since 2015. But he’s been in an inexplicable slump this year, missing cuts, blowing putts, shanking off the tee. He has not won a major tournament this entire season, a career first. And now, at the end of the regular season, he found himself facing down the possibility of missing the FedEx Cup playoffs, which he won outright in 2017, the year he was best in the world.
Thomas came to Greensboro for the same reason a lot of the players in the field of 156: He had to. Because the Wyndham is still the last regular-season tournament, the last chance for a lot of players to make it into the lucrative postseason.
Thomas came into the week ranked No. 79 in FedEx Cup standings, which in years past would have been fine. Until this year, the Top 125 players would advance; new PGA rules narrowed that number down to 70. To jump nine places in the standings, Thomas wouldn’t need to win the Wyndham; he just needed to make a showing strong enough to land in the Top 10.
Plenty of other players shared this predicament: Adam Scott, who began the week at No. 81; Shane Lowry, who stood at 78; tour rookie Ben Griffin, who started the week at 68 but was bounced to 70 after missing the cut on Friday; Austin Eckroat, who started the week right on the bubble, at No. 70.
On Thursday, the first day of the tournament, things looked bleak for Thomas, who shot par on the old Donald Ross course, two bogeys and two birdies. Day 2 went a lot better. In a threesome with fellow bubble denizens Lowry and Scott, he shot the best round with a -5 built upon eight birdies and a couple bogeys, including a magnificent chip-in off the green on the par-3 16th Hole.
Scott and Lowry, who shot a +1 and -1 respectively that day, had problems of their own. But Thomas entered Day 3, Saturday, with a head of steam and a shot at making the playoffs, if not winning the entire thing.
He began the day paired with Matt Wallace, who also had Wyndham troubles. Wallace, who started the week at 80 in FedEx Cup standings, made headlines earlier in the week after sounding off about the tournament and the course, which he called “ridiculous,” adding: “I don’t like this golf course.”
“[I]f I don’t have to come here, I wouldn’t,” he told a gaggle of reporters on Thursday, “but I kind of need to.”
The line of spectators to watch them tee off on Saturday — some for “JT,” as his fans call him, and some to heckle Wallace — stretched all the way to the green.
Undaunted by the distraction, Thomas would end the day at -4, bringing his total to -9, edging him further up the FedEx Cup ladder, all the way to No. 70, the proverbial bubble. If he could play one more day like this, he would avoid missing the FedEx Cup for the first time in his career.
The story of the 2023 Wyndham Championship is probably that of the eventual winner, Lucan Glover, who wowed the field with spectacular play over four days that led to a -20 finish, two strokes shy of the tournament record. His performance, just his fifth tournament win in a 22-year career, catapulted him from 112th in FedEx Cup standings all the way up to No. 49, guaranteeing a spot in the playoffs and also a spot at next year’s Master’s Tournament, which he sat out this year. His young children pooled at his feet, Lucas cried a little as he accepted his award.
That could easily have been Justin Thomas, just a matter of inches.
On Day 4 of the tournament, paired with fellow American Nick Hardy, Thomas showed moments of brilliance: a 17-foot putt for birdie on the 6th, an eagle on the par-5 15th hole. But though he managed to save par throughout most of the day, his chips often fell short of the greens and his putts would run out of steam before making it to the hole. He failed to make the kind of shots big-time players make under this sort of pressure… until the 18th.
It is said of the old Donald Ross course at Sedgefield that a golfer needs to have their ducks in a row before the 18th hole, a long par 4 with an alternate fairway to the left, a creek interrupting an uphill approach and a green that looks like a potato chip. Birdies are hard to come by here, eagles practically unheard of. One errant shot could turn a birdie into a bogey right quick.
Thomas saved his best shots of the tourney for the very end.
After driving into the trees bisecting the fairway, he lined up on the pinestraw surrounded by thin trees, boughs obstructing his view of the flag in the back left quadrant of the green.
His shot sent him off balance, windmilling his club and falling back as the ball once again fell short of the green. His penultimate stroke, the one that sent the ball bouncing off the pin, may be the finest missed golf shot ever televised.
After shooting -2 on the day, his -11 was enough to place him in a tie for 12th place with Charley Hoffman, who hit a double eagle on 15 from 200 yards out earlier that day. But it wasn’t enough to get him into the playoffs. Justin Thomas would end his season ranked at No. 71 in FedEx Cup standings, a matter of inches.
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