DUBLIN, Ohio — Justin Thomas turned 27 just three months ago. He cannot be considered old by any sensible person on this planet. He will, however, play the role of grizzled veteran in Sunday’s tantalizing final group of the Workday Charity Open, where he’ll be joined by 22-year-old Viktor Hovland and 23-year-old Collin Morikawa.
And if Thomas keeps refusing to make bogeys, he’s going to be extremely hard to beat.
Thomas’ 66 on Saturday was his third straight bogey-free round at a relatively benign Muirfield Village—it should flash more fire next week for The Memorial—and he sits at 16 under heading into Sunday. He has a chance to join J.T. Poston [2019 Wyndham Championship] and Lee Trevino [1974 New Orleans Open] as the only players ever to win a 72-hole PGA Tour event without making a bogey. He can also become the youngest player since Tiger Woods to reach 13 tour victories.
Trying to make Thomas’ march as difficult as possible will be two of the game’s brightest young stars, both already tour winners themselves: Hovland, who shot 66 and will enter Sunday just two back; and Morikawa, who led by three at the halfway point but never looked comfortable in shooting 72. He trails Thomas by three. Sam Burns, another barely legal drinker at 23, is two shots farther back after a 70.
This comes one week after Matthew Wolff—along with his former Oklahoma State teammate Hovland and Morikawa, the third member of the “Class of 2019” that all made their pro debuts at last year’s Travelers—held the 54-hole lead and finished solo second at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. The kids are here, and they’re more than alright.
Because of a crummy weather forecast, players will be sent out in threesomes, off both tees, early on Sunday morning. The final group will tee off at 9 a.m. local time. That’s a bummer for those planning to sleep in on Sunday. On the flip side, Thomas, Hovland and Morikawa will comprise one of the better final groups in recent memory. If only there were fans here to see it.
“I’ve been around Collin a good bit, but I haven’t spent much time around Viktor,” Thomas said. “I’ve obviously seen him and know he’s an unbelievable player, so it’ll be fun to play with those two guys tomorrow because I’m sure it’s the first of many pairings I’ll have with them.
“But a guy like Collin, I could be playing and having him as a teammate in Ryder Cups, Presidents Cups, whatever it is. It’ll be fun to hang with those guys tomorrow, but at the end of the day I’m worried about myself and trying to win a golf tournament and have a good round.”
For a player of Thomas’ pedigree—he of 12 PGA Tour wins, a major and a former world No. 1 title—a virtuoso showing like this is never truly a surprise. But you’re forgiven if you didn’t exactly see this coming from Thomas’ showing in his last start. In missing the cut by six at the Travelers Championship two weeks ago, Thomas ranked 138th in strokes gained—approach and 153rd in strokes gained—putting. He then flew back to South Florida for a week of practice at the Bear’s Club with his father and coach, Mike, and something quite clearly clicked. Thomas has not missed a putt inside eight feet all week, and he’s gotten up and down each of the 12 times he’s missed a green.
“Really worked on my speed hard,” Thomas said. “Because when I miss putts, that’s usually the biggest reason.”
Hovland has been terrific since the tour restarted after the three-month COVID-19 hiatus, flashing a much-improved short game and finishing T-23 or better in each of his four starts since, including a T-12 at last week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic. That streak seemed doomed after 10 holes this week, when he found himself three over par before birdieing six of his last eight to post a 69 that set himself up for another profitable week.
“It’s really cool to be in this position after that bad start because the past couple weeks I’ve had good first rounds and been up by the lead early on, but I’ve been kind of falling off,” Hovland said. “I’m really proud of kind of how I was able to turn it around and just kind of play better and better every single day.
The Norwegian has crept up to world No. 42 and looks increasingly like a lock to make his Ryder Cup debut for Team Europe next year.
Morikawa, who had a streak of 23 straight made cuts to start his PGA Tour career broken at the Travelers Championship, led by as many as six on Friday after polishing off a 66 to get to 13 under. He was a different player on Saturday, fighting a pesky block and missing in the wrong spots multiple times. Despite hitting 10 fairways, he hit just 11 greens—a shockingly low number for a player who ranks third on tour in strokes gained—approach for the season—and needed a curling 16-footer for birdie at 18 to salvage an even-par round.
“It was really up and down,” Morikawa said of his round. “I put myself in spots you couldn’t put yourself in. Twelve, I was over the bunker left like 10 yards, so just iron distances weren’t working. Couldn’t really figure out wind directions, how much to adjust. But whole new day tomorrow and kind of glad I fought it out through even par and got myself three back. So that can change really quickly tomorrow.”