KAPALUA, HI – Justin Thomas won the Sentry Tournament of Champions, and he still doesn't know how.
He lost a two-shot lead with three holes to play. He had to play the par-5 18th hole four times Sunday and always seemed to be scrambling just to stay in the game in a three-man playoff. There was more exhaustion than elation.
“I really don't know how I won today,” Thomas said. “I got very fortunate.”
The thrill-a-minute start to the year on the PGA Tour ended with Thomas chopping his way to bogey on the 18th, getting another chance when Xander Schauffele three-putted for par on the final hole in regulation to force a playoff, and then twice having to watch Patrick Reed stand over a putt to win.
On the third playoff hole — the last one before darkness — Thomas recovered from another poor shot with a sand wedge that illustrates why his short game is among the best in golf. He played a high cut from 113 yards that landed just over the ridge with enough spin to settle 3 feet away for birdie.
His caddie, Jimmy Johnson, asked if it was safer to put the ball in the air or pitch it low and ride the slope. Thomas replied, “I need to make birdie. I'm not worried what the safest play is. We need to make 4.”
Reed, who never had the lead all day, had a 30-foot eagle putt and a 12-foot birdie putt in the playoff to win. His last chance was an 8-foot birdie with Thomas in tight, and it was too strong. Making the finish even uglier is a fan who screamed, “CHEATER!" after he hit the putt. Reed turned and glared.
It was a reference to his rules violation in the Bahamas when video showed him scooping away sand to improve his lie. Reed was penalized two shots for it, and faced extreme heckling by the Australian crowd at the Presidents Cup.
“It stings at the end whenever you don't birdie for the win,” Reed said, whose 7-under 66 matched the best score of the tournament. “But really, I gave myself an opportunity. I put myself in position to have a chance, and I needed a little bit of help at the end there, and they gave it to me, allowing me to even get in the playoff.”
Thomas, who closed with a 4-under 69 after bogeys on two of his last three holes, won for the third time in his last six starts on the PGA Tour. It was his 12th career victory, one more than Jordan Spieth and the most of any active player under 30.
Thomas hit a terrible tee shot in regulation, and the 3-wood that followed didn't carry the knee-high vegetation. He took a penalty drop, hit wedge to 8 feet and missed the par putt.
Schauffele, who closed with a 70, hit the green in two — only the seventh time that happened all week on the rain-softend conditions of the Plantation Course — and had 35 feet for eagle. The 30 mph gusts helped to send his first putt 7 feet by the hole, and he missed the birdie putt in his bid to become the first player in 10 years to win back-to-back at Kapalua.
Schauffele was eliminated after the first extra hole when he three-putted from 100 feet away at the front of the green, leaving his first putt 20 feet short.
“I should have won the tournament,” said Schauffele, bidding to become the first back-to-back winner at Kapalua in 10 years. “J.T. was right there. But under the circumstances, I should have closed it out. I did everything I was supposed to until the last moment.”
Reed was never tied for the lead until nearly an hour after he made a 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole. That put him at 14-under 278, which looked as though it would not be good enough.
Thomas had a two-shot lead when he swirled in a 3-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole, and then he came undone. His tee shot on the 16th hole found a bunker, and he missed an 8-foot par putt. Thomas holed a 6-foot par putt on the next hole, lightly pumping his fist because he kept a one-shot lead with the par-5 18th remaining.
“I botched it up pretty badly,” Thomas said.
For a moment, he thought he had wasted one of the best rounds he had ever played. He ran off six birdies in eight holes to turn a two-shot deficit into a two-shot lead, an astounding display given the strength of the wind.
"That stretch of holes J.T. went through, I'd like to see anyone else try it," Schauffele said. "He was hitting ridiculous shots, making good putts in the wind, and he deserved the lead he got."
Ultimately, Thomas got he victory that took longer than he might have expected.