The golf ball rolled to the lip of the 10th hole and stubbornly stuck there, no matter how hard Justin Thomas wished for it to disappear.
One second. Two seconds. Three seconds. Four seconds.
Thomas – a couple of hours away from winning the PGA Championship for the first major title of his career -- had just attempted an 8-foot putt at Quail Hollow Club. He was in no hurry to tap it in, hoping for a minor miracle. Or a minor earthquake. He walked a slow half-circle around the ball.
Five seconds. Six seconds. Seven seconds. Eight seconds.
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The 2017 PGA Championship had turned into a cliffhanger – at one point near the end Sunday there was a five-way tie for the lead. And it was Thomas’ putt that symbolized that cliffhanger in miniature.
Thomas needed this birdie badly. But the ball appeared to be avoiding gravity by a mere dimple. There was 51 percent of the ball outside the hole, and 49 percent peering over the edge, wondering what a walk on the dark side might feel like.
Nine seconds. Ten seconds.
Thomas started walking slowly toward the ball, resigned to the tap-in.
Golf balls pull a hide-and-seek number with the hole occasionally, which was why Thomas was taking his time. Plus, he was annoyed. He was wearing one of those smiles that people put on when they are actually quite irritated.
“I threw a little fit to see what would happen,” Thomas said, laughing.
Golf fans remember well Tiger Woods making a miraculous chip-in at No.16 to win the 2005 Masters. That ball also hung on the lip. The ball took a longer time to get to the hole, and it was a far tougher shot to execute. But when Tiger’s ball finally got to the hole, it stayed on the edge only 1.8 seconds before falling.
Eleven seconds. Twelve seconds.
And suddenly, the ball dropped into the cup.
The funny thing – Thomas admitted later he actually wasn’t watching the ball by that point. He was looking at his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, and saying, “How did that not go in?”
But then it did. Fans screamed. Thomas first tipped his cap to acknowledge the applause. Then he shrugged his shoulders with his arms outstretched in an “I’m as surprised as you are!” gesture.
Overshadowed by Spieth
Thomas has long been a golf prodigy. He made a PGA Tour cut in Greensboro at age 16. He grew up in Kentucky as both the son and grandson of PGA teaching pros. Some families drive minivans most of the time. The Thomases drove golf carts.
The Thomas family has video of Justin swinging a golf club and connecting with the ball by the time he could walk. He once won two junior golf tournaments in the same day. Thomas is still not a big guy now – listed at 5-10 and 145 pounds. But man, he can play.
The 24-year-old Thomas has had major-caliber talent for years, but has been overshadowed by good friend and fellow 24-year-old Jordan Spieth’s massive success. (Thomas is three months older than Spieth).
Still, Thomas may be the player of the year for 2017. He had won three PGA Tour events already this year coming into this event and shot a 59 during one of those victories.
But Thomas hadn’t won a major until Sunday, when he won the first major championship Charlotte has ever hosted by two shots. Spieth and Rickie Fowler both hung around the 18th green until Thomas clinched the title and got a bear hug from his father, Mike.
Then Fowler hugged Thomas. And Spieth told him: “So awesome, dude!”
It was a nice moment for the 20-somethings and the next generation of golf’s stars, who truly seem to root for each other.
‘Gravity took over’
The putt on the 10th hole wasn’t the longest Thomas made Sunday – that would be the 36-footer he sank on No.9. It didn’t have the hardest degree of difficulty – that was the remarkable chip-in from 39 feet on No. 13. It wasn’t a birdie on Quail Hollow’s treacherous Green Mile – although Thomas had one of those, too, curling in a 14-footer on No.17 that gave him some breathing room.
But the putt that hung on the lip of the cup for 12 seconds at No. 10 was the most dramatic.
“Gravity took over,” Thomas said.
And when that ball dropped for Thomas on No.10, it was like the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve at Times Square in New York City. A new era was about to begin, and it was time for Thomas and friends to party.