Staring over the top of a bunker on his final hole, the prudent play for Justin Thomas might have been to make sure he got out of the sand and avoided a big number.
But then, Thomas didn’t care about a big number. It was about golf’s magic number.
“This isn’t a time for me to lay it up,” Thomas said Thursday at the Sony Open.
He hit a five-iron so clean and so high that it carried 207 yards into a light Pacific breeze to 15 feet on the par-five ninth hole at Waialae Country Club in Hawaii. Thomas poured in the eagle putt for an 11-under 59, becoming the seventh player to post a sub-60 round in PGA Tour history.
For a brief moment, he reacted as if it were little more than the perfect finish to a great opening round. He stretched out his putter that was still in his left hand, smiled and punched the air with his right fist. Only when he looked over at Jordan Spieth and Daniel Berger, the two witnesses to a 59 that Thomas made look easy, did the sense of history start to hit him.
Berger thrust his arm in the air. Spieth, his best friend in golf since they were 13, crouched as the ball neared the cup and delivered a left-handed fist pump as both raced over to congratulate him.
“I think I got more excited from seeing them get excited than I did my putt going in,” Thomas said. “I thought about it going up to the green. I’m like, `If I make it, what am I going to do?’ It’s not like winning a tournament. You have three days left to try to play well. So I didn’t really know how to react. I never had a putt on the last hole on a Thursday mean that much.”
He was five shots better than anyone in the morning, but his lead was only three shots by the end of the day. Hudson Swafford shot a 62 in the afternoon. Swafford made a birdie on his 12th hole, when his caddie told him, “We’ve got to make seven birdies on the last six holes to catch Justin.”
The average score was 68.26.
It was different from the feeling he had four days ago when he won the SBS Tournament of Champions at Kapalua. That was his third victory on the PGA Tour, and the 23-year-old Thomas is sure to win more.
“I don’t have many chances to shoot 59,” he said.
Jim Furyk was the last player with a sub-60 round when he closed with a record 58 at the Travelers Championship last summer. Furyk also had a 59 in 2013 at the BMW Championship, joining the exclusive group that includes Al Geiberger (1977 Memphis Classic), Chip Beck (1991 Las Vegas Invitational), David Duval (1999 Bob Hope Classic), Paul Goydos (2010 John Deere Classic) and Stuart Appleby (2010 Greenbrier Classic).
This was special because he made it look so easy.
He began by pitching in for eagle from 35 yards. Thomas never hit more than a 7-iron into the par 4s at Waialae on a perfect day for scoring — very little breeze, fast fairways and soft greens. That 7-iron was chipped under the trees and into a bunker on No. 8 when he was trying to save par.
His only bogey came on his second hole, the par-3 11th, when his tee shot went into a bunker and he missed an 18-foot par putt.
Duval was the only other player to shoot 59 with an eagle on the last hole. Furyk at Conway Farms is the only other player to shoot 59 with a bogey.
Spieth was more nervous than Thomas and far more demonstrative. Thomas had a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 7 that looked good even when it was inches from the cup until burning the edge. Spieth clutched the back of his neck and was still asking how the putt didn’t fall when he walked onto the next tee. He was talking to himself, of course. He gave Thomas his space.
“It’s like sitting on the bench with a teammate throwing a perfect game,” Spieth said. “It was awesome. What an awesome last five rounds he’s had.”
McIlroy off to good start
Rory McIlroy made an impressive start to 2017 with a new set of clubs, shooting a five-under 67 in the first round at the SA Open on Thursday.
Making his first appearance at the tournament since 2008, McIlroy rolled in seven birdies — including four straight from Nos. 14-17 after starting at the 10th — to put himself a shot off the lead held by Trevor Fisher Jr. after the morning starters.
With Nike announcing last year it would no longer be making golf clubs and balls, the second-ranked McIlroy has been testing out new woods, irons and a putter from other manufacturers and said his new bag “is working pretty well.”
“I’m sure as I get accustomed to them — I mean, it’s nice to play my first competitive round and play like this — I’ll get even more dialed in, and chop and change a little bit,” McIlroy said.