Justin Thomas opened with five straight birdies, added a pair of eagles and shattered the course record at soft, vulnerable Medinah with an 11-under 61 to take a six-shot lead into the final round of the BMW Championship.
Thomas hit 5-wood to 2 feet for an eagle on No. 10, holed out from 180 yards with an 8-iron on No. 16 and made eight birdies to turn a tight race into a one-man show.
“I felt good about my game for a while, and you don’t know when something like this going to happen,” Thomas said. “We’ve all been talking the last couple of weeks that I’m due to have one, and it’s nice when it happens.”
And just like that, he was already thinking about Sunday.
Thomas was at 21-under 195, six shots clear of Tony Finau (68) and Patrick Cantlay (67). He has a clear path to his first victory in a year, and it would give him the FedEx Cup lead going into the Tour Championship at East Lake.
The goal for Tiger Woods is simply to get to the Tour Championship, where last year he ended five years without winning. Woods had a bogey-free 67, his lowest score since the final round of the Memorial.
When Medinah is this much of a pushover, it didn’t help all that much. He was tied for 31st, with some 18 players ahead of where he needs to be to move into the top 30 in the FedEx Cup and advance to East Lake.
“I shoot 60, it should be all right,” Woods said, a tongue-in-cheek comment made about the time Thomas was teeing off.
He had a pair of 12-foot birdie putts, hit to 2 feet on No. 3, holed a 15-footer on No. 4 and was out of position only briefly before a fifth straight birdie on the par-5 fifth. But it was the back nine where Thomas seized control.
First, he drilled a 5-wood that rolled out to 2 feet below the cup. Ordinarily, that might have been his best shot of the day. For this round, it didn’t rate among the top three. He chipped in for birdie from a fluffy lie behind the 14th green. Understated was his pitch to the 15th after driving into the water to save par.
And then, the fireworks on a cloudy, dreary afternoon that featured a rain stoppage of just more than an hour.
From 180 yards, he cut an 8-iron that looked all the way, landed short of the hole and rolled in. Thomas smiled and mentioned, “Brooks Koepka’s money,” to caddie Jimmy Johnson, referring to a wager Thomas has with Koepka on holing shots from over 50 yards ($1,000) and a hole-in-one ($5,000). That put Thomas up $7,000.
With adrenaline running high, he hit 9-iron from a forward tee and a front pin over the water to 6 feet for his last birdie.
Finau holed out from the fourth fairway for eagle. Cantlay had five birdies.
Low scores were everywhere.
Medinah never looked more vulnerable.
“It doesn’t matter what golf course it is,” Thomas said. “You give us soft, good greens and soft fairways, we’re going to tear it apart. It’s just how it is.”
All but two players in the 69-man field — Harold Varner III and Cameron Champ — were at par or better.
In five majors held at Medinah, the lowest score was a 65. That was matched twice Thursday by Thomas and Jason Kokrak. Hideki Matsuyama set the standard with a 63 on Friday. Thomas beat that by two.
“I hope the trend doesn’t continue unless it’s me,” Thomas said with a grin.
Thomas hasn’t won since the Bridgestone Invitational last year at Firestone, and he wasn’t ready to call this one over. He wasn’t thinking about next week and the $15 million prize, or even making sure he starting his season on Maui with the rest of the PGA Tour winners.
He’s up by six. He wants to make it seven.
Only seven players in PGA Tour history have lost a six-shot lead in the final round, most recently Dustin Johnson at the 2017 HSBC Champions.
For others, plenty is at stake.
Rory Sabbatini shot 30 on the back nine — four birdies over his last five holes — and was alone in fourth. That would be enough to get him into the Tour Championship for the first time since 2007, the first year of the FedEx Cup.
Finau could lock up a spot on the Presidents Cup team if he were to keep his position, even better if he were to finish alone in second. Lucas Glover was nine shots behind, but still projected to be among the top 30.
The perks of the Tour Championship include a chase for a $15 million top prize, along with a spot in all the majors next year.