By Sam McPherson

The 2018 PGA Championship takes place later this week, and the rest of the field better be aware of defending champion Justin Thomas. The 25-year-old from Kentucky, who just won the World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational this past weekend in Akron, Ohio, by four strokes, just served notice he is ready to defend his title. Thomas finished at 15-under par after playing four rounds in the 60s to easily outpace the rest of the field and win his third event of the PGA Tour season.

Thomas posted 65-64-67-69 to take home $1.7 million while laying a legitimate claim to the No. 1 golf ranking in the world, which he held previously this season for four weeks in late spring. Kyle Stanley finished second at 11-under, while current No. 1 Dustin Johnson — who won last week at the RBC Canadian Open — and Sweden’s Thorbjorn Olesen tied for third at 10-under par. Both third-place golfers shot 64s on Sunday to leapfrog several contenders on the leaderboard.

Two-time defending U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka finished alone in fifth place at 9-under par, while Rory McIlroy, who won the 2012 and 2014 PGA Championships, started the fourth round three shots behind Thomas before struggling to a 73 and a sixth-place finish. This was a leaderboard full of golfers who know how to win big events, and Thomas never blinked after taking the lead in the second round. That could be a sign of things to come later this week at the PGA in St. Louis.

The Firestone Country Club South Course played more difficult as the tournament went on, and as the loop dried up in the sun. Ian Poulter led after the first round on Thursday, shooting an 8-under par round of 62 to establish a one-shot margin over both Rickie Fowler and Stanley. Three players stood two shots back at 6-under: Patrick Cantlay, Si Woo Kim, and Jon Rahm. A seven-way tie for seventh place at 5-under par included notables Jason Day, McIlroy, and Thomas.

After the second round on Friday, though, Poulter was joined atop the leaderboard by Thomas and Tommy Fleetwood. Poulter carded a 67 to move to 11-under, while Fleetwood’s 63 was the low round of the day. Thomas shot a 64 to move up into the tie for the lead. Two shots back, Day and Stanley were tied for fourth place, with Kim and McIlroy lurking at 8-under par in a tie for sixth place.

Thomas surged on Saturday, building himself a three-shot cushion for the fourth round, as he posted a 67 to take the lead all alone at 14-under par. Poulter started the third round off well enough, but by the end of the day, he had managed just an even-par round. This left him in a second-place tie at 11-under with McIlroy, who shot 67. Day stood in fourth place by himself at 10-under par, four shots behind Thomas, after he carded a 69 on Saturday.

Poulter, who reached 13-under par early in the third round, ended up shooting 70-74 over the weekend to eventually finish in a 10th-place tie with Day and Kim at 7-under. It did not matter, as no one was going to match Thomas this weekend in Akron. Only time will tell if the same can be said for him next week at Bellerive Country Club.

>>MORE: This Week In Golf

Next On The Tee: PGA Championship

This is the 100th edition of the PGA Championship, traditionally the fourth major of the season. However, this will be the last year the event is held in August. Next season, the PGA Championship will move to May, setting up the four majors over four straight months (The Masters in April, the PGA in May, the U.S. Open in June, and the British Open in July). As noted, Thomas is the defending champion, having posted a two-shot victory last year over three competitors: the red-hot Francesco Molinari, 2010 British Open champ, Louis Oosthuizen, and 2018 Masters winner, Patrick Reed.

Thomas has proven himself against the best in the world many times on Tour. And he’ll have to do it again to win this week. The field for the 2018 PGA will be stacked as usual. Jimmy Walker (2016), Day (2015), McIlroy (2012, 2014), Jason Dufner (2013), Keegan Bradley (2011), and Martin Kaymer (2010), all PGA champs this decade, are ready to tee it up this week at Bellerive. Former champions Phil Mickelson (2005), Tiger Woods (1999, 2000, 2006, 2007), and Y.E. Yang (2009) are back as well. Throw in hot players like Johnson and Molinari, the reigning British Open champ, and it’s going to be an exciting week in Missouri.

The 100th PGA Championship will not be the first played on this track, as Bellerive hosted both the 1965 U.S. Open and the 1992 PGA Championship. Gary Player won that Open, and Nick Price won the 1992 PGA. Both players won multiple majors in their careers, so chances are good the winner this week will have some experience in closing out major tournament wins. Robert Trent Jones originally designed the loop, which opened in 1960, although the course was redesigned in the mid-2000s by Jones’ son, Rees.

The Bellerive Country Club course plays 7,329 yards long and is a par 70.

Favorites: Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas

Players to Watch: Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Ian Poulter

Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf and fantasy sports for CBS Local. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach. Follow him on Twitter @sxmcp, because he’s quite prolific despite also being a college English professor and a certified copy editor.

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