Justin Thomas — from tag-along to contender
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.