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Stephen Gallacher column: Justin Thomas moving on up after tough few months

Justin Thomas holds the trophy after winning The Players Championship.
Justin Thomas holds the trophy after winning The Players Championship.

It has been a difficult start to 2021 for Justin Thomas but he was a very worthy winner at The Players Championship.

The American produced a stunning display of ball-striking to claim victory at Sawgrass with Lee Westwood and Bryson DeChambeau hoping to pounce on any error over the closing stretch.

The final round had everything – shanks, tops and some unbelievable shots. It was incredibly exciting, but there was no let-up from Thomas as he pipped Westwood by a stroke.

The 27-year-old admitted 2021 has been a challenging year for him.

On-course microphones picked up him using a homophobic slur while competing at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January. He apologised, but was dropped by his sponsor Ralph Lauren. It is an incident he will have learned a lot from.

He had to cope with a lot of negative press from around the world, but he seems to have handled it as well as he could have.

Then his grandfather Paul, who he was very close to, died last month before his close friend Tiger Woods was seriously injured in a car accident.

But he produced some superb golf at Sawgrass and his 64 on Saturday was the major reason he went on to take the crown.

I’ve played Sawgrass before and I know how tight and challenging those closing few holes are. It is not an easy place to get over the finishing line and we have seen plenty of players slip up over those final three holes.

Justin appeared very emotional after his victory and that’s hardly surprising given everything he has gone through over the past few weeks.

Thomas has one major to his name – the 2017 US PGA Championship – but he will be feeling confident heading to Augusta next month after his Sawgrass success.

He finished fourth at last year’s Masters and was just outside the top 10 in 2019, so it’s a course that clearly suits his eye.

As for Westwood – he must be wondering what he has to do to win after runner-up finishes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship.

He can be delighted with his efforts.

I’m glad he holed the putt at the last to finish second on his own.

It is incredible to see a player competing at the very top of the game who will be turning 48 next month.

Lee Westwood.

That is one of the great aspects of golf. We have spoken a lot over the past year about Bryson DeChambeau’s quest for maximum length of the tee, but Westwood is showing there is more than one way to make it round a course in a low score.

Could this be the year that Westwood ends his wait for a major?

He certainly looks capable of competing with the very best and he is back in the top 20 after his fantastic fortnight.

He has finished second at The Masters on two occasions – 2016 and 2013 – and has six top-10s in total.

It is probably the major that is due him one because he has been so close there on numerous occasions.

There will be plenty of people backing him to finally get his hands on the Green Jacket next month.

Padraig Harrington will be delighted because Westwood is one of four Englishmen in the top 20 with Tommy Fleetwood at No 22.

The Ryder Cup is looking very promising from a European perspective.

It was a frustrating week for Rory McIlroy and he was very honest in his assessment of where his game is.

He feels he has paid the price for trying to keep pace with Bryson DeChambeau’s big-hitting. It was very open and unlike something you tend to hear from a professional sportsman.

There was always going to be a “Bryson effect” and players changing their game in a bid to keep up. We saw the same thing with Tiger Woods.

But McIlroy already had length and accuracy. He is hitting the ball longer, but he is not as accurate.

DeChambeau is a very analytical, methodical player, whereas McIlroy is more about feel and creativity.

It probably wasn’t the right thing to do, but he deserves credit for coming out and acknowledging that publicly.

There aren’t too many who would do the same.

Hopefully he can get back to what he does so well and can be competing at Augusta.

His interview looked like he was getting a bit of weight off his chest, so hopefully it’s onwards and upwards for the former world number one.

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