CHICAGO •Going into the final round of the BMW Championship, Justin Thomas spent more time worrying about what could go wrong than on winning his first title in 12 months.
And right when it started to go wrong, his six-shot lead shrinking to two in three holes, he delivered his biggest shots in the penultimate FedEx Cup play-off event at the Medinah Country Club.
He answered with two clutch wedge shots, two big putts en route to a four-under 68 and a three-shot win over fellow American Patrick Cantlay, who made four straight birdies around the turn to finish with a 65.
"Patrick played unbelievably, put a lot of heat on me," Thomas, 26, said after his 25-under 263 total. "In the end, it could have been good for me.
"It kept me focused, kept my head down. I was really nervous going into today. I remembered that it's really hard to win a golf tournament, and I'm glad that I was able to do so."
The timing was ideal.
His first victory since the World Golf Championship at FedEx St Jude Invitational last year made him the top seed in the field of 30 for the season-ending Tour Championship in Atlanta next week, where the winner can win a staggering US$15 million (S$20.8 million) first prize.
Under a new scoring format, Thomas will start at 10-under, a two-shot lead over Cantlay, at eight-under. World No. 1 Brooks Koepka will be at seven-under in a staggered start all the way down to even par for the final five players.
The field will not include Masters champion Tiger Woods, the Tour Championship defending champion. A long shot to crack the top 30, he closed with a 72 in the final round.
East Lake last year was his first title in five years, capping his return from four back surgeries, a special moment replaced some six months later by his Masters victory.
"It's disappointing," Woods said. "Last year culminated in a pretty special moment and it would have been nice to go back there."
The final-day drama was unexpected, not with Thomas' six-shot lead. Only seven players, dating to 1928, have lost a six-shot lead on the PGA Tour. He did not want to be the eighth.
That was why he shut his phone off on his way to the course. It seemed everyone else had already declared him the winner and he found no refuge in the locker room.
"Guys giving me advice how to finish off a tournament," he said. "I was like, 'I've done this a couple times guys but, thank you'. It's a lot of the outside noise that makes it harder sometimes to stay focused."
He rose five rungs to become No. 5 in the world, and the win earned him US$1,665,000. Even more money is at stake next week.