Justin Thomas — from tag-along to con­tender

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - SPORTS - By Steve Hum­mer shum­mer@ajc.com

It was all kind of cute when Justin Thomas was that go-along and get-along buddy. You know, the one who doesn’t ask for much other than to be­long, the well-mean­ing, non-threat­en­ing mem­ber of the pack.

But what now that Thomas is the guy win­ning the over­sized checks and the tro­phies as big as espresso ma­chines — in­clud­ing one of those pre­cious ma­jors? Now this good friend is re­ally cut­ting into Jor­dan Spi­eth’s ac­tion.

So, when do you sup­pose th­ese two will start be­hav­ing like proper bit­ter ri­vals?

“Prob­a­bly never,” Spi­eth said last week, dis­ap­point­ing all those who love a lit­tle com­pet­i­tive ten­sion on their week­ends.

The world craves a ri­valry. There be­ing no bean­balls in golf, could they give us just a lit­tle some­thing re­sem­bling petty re­sent­ment or pro­fes­sional jeal­ousy along the way?

Th­ese two 24-year-olds, Spi­eth and Thomas, cur­rently the

lead­ers of golf ’s Rat Pack gen­er­a­tion, can barely even bring them­selves to use the “R” word.

“It’s not re­ally a ri­valry. I think that word is thrown around a lot when it doesn’t need to be,” Thomas said.

Never mind that en­ter­ing the penul­ti­mate PGA Tour play­off event, the BMW Cham­pi­onship, Spi­eth and Thomas are 1-2 in FedEx Cup points. They no doubt will be leav­ing sub­ur­ban Chicago and scrum­ming it up at East Lake Golf Club this week for both the Tour Cham­pi­onship and the $10 mil­lion FedEx Cup bonus. Friend­ships have cracked over a whole lot less, for pen­nies on those kind of dol­lars.

Even be­fore Thomas and Spi­eth and a few of their other chums left for their now tra­di­tional spring blowout in the Caribbean — # SB2K17 — the dy­namic had be­gun to change. Thomas went nuts on the front end of the PGA Tour’s wrap­around sea­son, win­ning half of his first six events, with a cou­ple other top-10 fin­ishes just for fun.

“Which is ab­surd,” said Spi­eth, him­self known for some lu­di­crous win­ning.

Fast for­ward to to­day and the ab­sur­di­ties have com­pounded. Thomas didn’t win the U.S. Open, but gave it a good scare by shoot­ing a third-round 63, the low­est score in re­la­tion to par in the his­tory of that weighty event.

He did win the sea­son’s fi­nal ma­jor, the PGA Cham­pi­onship, by a fairly com­fort­able two strokes and fully emerged from the shadow of his good friend Spi­eth. For the son and grand­son of golf-club pro­fes­sion­als, the vic­tory at this par­tic­u­lar cham­pi­onship was es­pe­cially grat­i­fy­ing.

“So awe­some, dude,” Spi­eth told Thomas as he left the fi­nal hole at Quail Hol­low that day. Of course, he did.

Head to head, th­ese two have had some in­ter­est­ing times lately. At the se­cond play­off event in Bos­ton, Thomas went 63-66 on the week­end to leave Spi­eth three shots in his wake. It was the first time he fin­ished a run­ner-up to Thomas.

Thomas be­gan the sea­son ranked 34th in the world, with a sin­gle ca­reer vic­tory. He’s No. 4 to­day and a run­away fa­vorite to be voted the PGA Tour’s player of the year.

He be­came the fourth player to have won five or more times in a sea­son — in­clud­ing a ma­jor. You’ve heard of the other three. Jack Nick­laus. Tiger Woods. And, nat­u­rally, Spi­eth. Who bet­ter to try to ex­plain the keys that have un­locked Thomas’ vast po­ten­tial? (It’s not like any of this should be a sur­prise. At Alabama, Thomas was col­lege golf ’s player of the year as a fresh­man in 2012 and led the Crim­son Tide to the first of back-to-back na­tional cham­pi­onships).

“I think he ex­pects him­self to close it out (now) and that’s kind of when you look at some­body who finds al­most ease in clos­ing un­der the high­est pres­sure,” Spi­eth said.

“That’s when you start to see some­body who ex­pects it out of him­self ver­sus some­body who says ‘Hey, I had a chance, but I didn’t quite pull it off, and it was still a re­ally good week.’

“He took that con­fi­dence into a ma­jor cham­pi­onship and made it look pretty easy.”

From his own view­point, Thomas would tell you that there is no sub­sti­tute for time in sea­son­ing a fel­low’s golf game.

While the two be­came friends by trav­el­ing the same path — through ju­nior golf and col­le­giate com­pe­ti­tion — Thomas turned pro a year later than Spi­eth. He’s gain­ing quickly.

“I feel like I’m grow­ing, get­ting older, ma­tur­ing,” Thomas said. “I’m smarter, not mak­ing the stupid mis­takes the weeks I play well.

“In terms of ac­tual golf, I’ve been con­sis­tently driv­ing it bet­ter this year. And I’m al­ways go­ing to be in con­tention if I’m chip­ping and putting well.”

Now that Thomas is an ac­cred­ited mem­ber of golf ’s fu­ture, Spi­eth would like to make one thing per­fectly clear.

“I prom­ise you when we’re out there and (Thomas) has got a 6-footer to win the tour­na­ment and I’m stand­ing right there on the green, I’m not root­ing for him to make it,” Spi­eth said. “I’m root­ing for him to miss it so we can go to a play­off and I can beat him.

“But when you aren’t the one that pulls it off and one of the peo­ple that you’re very close to can, then it’s re­ally cool for us,” he said.

Hav­ing a friend like Spi­eth out there as both an ex­am­ple and a source of envy ac­tu­ally proved quite help­ful for Thomas. The I-want-whathe-has mo­ti­va­tion is time tested.

Sure, there was a lit­tle peer pres­sure to suc­ceed. But there was more to it. A lot more.

“The want to win and the want to be known as a ma­jor cham­pion, the want to be a mul­ti­ple win­ner and have records is drive enough for me,” Thomas said.

“That drove me more than want­ing to do it be­cause Jor­dan did it. Yeah, you want to keep up with your bud­dies, you want to win if they have more wins than you. But at the end of the day, I want to win be­cause I like win­ning and en­joy be­ing at the top of the list — whether it’s a leader board or a points list.”

Golf is a solo act. Is it re­ally pos­si­ble for the big fin­ish at East Lake to be part buddy movie, too?

“We played against each other when we were 14. Now we’re just at the top and we’re un­der the ’scope all the time and we’re com­pet­ing against each other and we’re hav­ing just as much fun now as we were then,” Thomas said.

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