JEFF JA­COBS

Thomas doesn’t have to act like No. 1 to be No. 1

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - Front Page - JEFF JA­COBS

SOUTHAMP­TON, N.Y. — He had be­come the world’s top-ranked golfer only last month and sud­denly he isn’t. Justin Thomas is crushed.

Ac­tu­ally, he isn’t crushed at all.

“I saw some­thing hys­ter­i­cal yes­ter­day on so­cial media,” Thomas said Tues­day, fewer than 48 hours be­fore tee­ing off with Tiger Woods and Dustin John­son in the 118th U.S. Open’s mar­quee three­some. “You know how when teams or play­ers go on long runs, it’s the last time this hap­pened?

“I’m bi­ased but of­ten a sce­nario is last time Ten­nessee beat Alabama (his alma mater) in foot­ball, iPhones weren’t born yet. Well, the last time I wasn’t No. 1 in the world, Ovechkin didn’t have a Stan­ley Cup and Rickie wasn’t en­gaged.”

Alexan­der Ovechkin has had so much fun the past week since the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals won, we al­most ex­pect to see him, Stan­ley Cup aloft, to go streak­ing across the 18th green at Shin­necock Hills. Thomas, mean­while, was there with the cam­era when Rickie Fowler got down on one knee and pro­posed to Al­li­son Stoke on a Long Island beach last week­end. The proof is on In­sta­gram.

The 25-year-old from Louisville, Ky., is a com­pelling study. Thomas has be­come one of the best golfers on the planet with­out be­ing driven by the golfer’s ob­ses­sion to per­fect ev­ery swing. He re­cently told Sports Il­lus­trated he never re­mem­bered play­ing poorly be­cause he was ner­vous, and that he drives Tiger Woods nuts be­cause he doesn’t know any­thing about his clubs. He counts Michael Jor­dan, Steph Curry, Tom Brady, Kid Rock and Justin Tim­ber­lake among golf­ing bud­dies, yet he doesn’t act like a celebrity.

Thomas, one of the head­lin­ers at a stacked Trav­el­ers Cham­pi­onship next week, doesn’t have to act like No. 1 to be No. 1.

Fowler, the PGA Tour’s most el­i­gi­ble bach­e­lor emer­i­tus, may not re­al­ize it, but he can thank Thomas for the $111,020 he won at the 2013 Trav­el­ers. The cut line was low 70 play­ers plus ties, but peo­ple for­get that’s 70 pros plus ties. Thomas was still play­ing as an am­a­teur, so a dozen oth­ers, in­clud­ing his bud, slipped in. Fowler ral­lied to fin­ish 13th.

“I re­mem­ber we were talk­ing at some event to Pa­trick Cant­lay and his fam­ily, who we gave an ex­emp­tion to (in 2011),” Trav­el­ers tour­na­ment di­rec­tor Nathan Grube said. “Justin was there. He was still in high school or a fresh­man at Alabama. He goes, ‘I want to play in your tour­na­ment some­day.’

“I go, ‘That’s great. We’d love to have you. Write in for an ex­emp­tion.’ Kind of jok­ing around. He was a nice kid. Af­ter his first year at Alabama, we saw he was def­i­nitely go­ing to be spe­cial. We gave him an ex­emp­tion. It has been great to watch his jour­ney.”

So here Thomas was as a pro at the 2016 Trav­el­ers. Only four play­ers in the 66-year his­tory of the event have shot bet­ter than the 62 he carded in the fi­nal round. It also is the Trav­el­ers’ great for­got­ten round. Only hours ear­lier Jim Furyk be­came the toast of the golf world with a PGA Tour-record 58.

“It was crazy,” Grube said. “I saw him in the club­house after­ward and said. ‘I’m so sorry. We’ve never had a 62 over­shad­owed like that be­fore. Great round.’ He goes, ‘Thanks, man.’

“He’s such a good kid, so gra­cious. He comes from a good fam­ily. You can see it in how he interacts with peo­ple. He was in the Walker Cup, in the mid­dle of the match, try­ing to help one of his bud­dies find a tee shot at 18. He saw me in the gallery, walks over, and goes, ‘Hey, what are you do­ing out here?’ ”

Unas­sum­ing works for Thomas. As a fresh­man at Alabama, he won the Hask­ins Award as col­lege player of the year. He led Alabama to the na­tional ti­tle as a sopho­more. In 2017, won the PGA Cham­pi­onship, the FedExCup PGA Tour player of the year and nearly $10 mil­lion. He won the Honda Clas­sic this year, climbed to No. 1 on May 13 and that lasted un­til John­ston won St. Jude on Sun­day hol­ing out with an ea­gle.

Asked how he was sim­i­lar to D.J., the world’s new No. 2 golfer smiled.

“We both hit it kind of far,” Thomas said. “I mean, our golf flights are dif­fer­ent. We have dif­fer­ent putting strokes. We have dif­fer­ent swings. To­tally dif­fer­ent body types. He’s much more ath­letic than I am. He’s more flex­i­ble. He’s stronger. He has won more times. We have dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. We’re dif­fer­ent ages. He has a fam­ily. I don’t. I could go on and on, but I think you get the pic­ture.”

The 25-year-old from Louisville, Ky., is a com­pelling study. Thomas has be­come one of the best golfers on the planet with­out be­ing driven by the golfer’s ob­ses­sion to per­fect ev­ery swing.

A to­tal of 81 golfers have won at least two ma­jors, while 138, in­clud­ing Thomas and John­son, have won one. That’s why when he was asked about Tiger and Phil Mick­el­son, he called them “Cadil­lacs.”

No Cadil­lac for Tiger this week. Stay­ing on the wa­ter nearby in his swanky yacht means not fret­ting about Long Island traf­fic jams that could threaten tee times, which led to Thomas telling a long story how he al­most missed a tee time at the U.S. Am­a­teur.

“Stay­ing on the dinghy helps,” Woods said.

You win 14 ma­jors, Thomas fig­ures, you de­serve the dinghy.

“I mean ab­so­lutely no dis­re­spect to the guys who have won one, my­self in­cluded,” Thomas said, “but it’s a lot eas­ier to get hot one week than it is to do it again and win an­other ma­jor. I want an­other sooner than later.”

His dad, Mike, a lo­cal golf pro who taught Justin how to play with­out turn­ing him into an ob­sessed lu­natic, told Sports Il­lus­trated that a cru­cial thing he saw in his son was that he wasn’t afraid to suc­ceed. The two never had a full ses­sion on the range un­til Justin was deep into high school. This is a kid who shot a 65 at the Wyn­d­ham Cham­pi­onship when he was only 16, the third-youngest player in PGA Tour his­tory to make a cut. This is a guy who has a new driver in his bag this week, shrugs and says it feels right, but never has had a full swing over­haul.

“The fond­est mem­ory that I have is just see­ing my dad off the 18th green at the PGA last year and giv­ing him a hug,” Thomas said. “It’s still the only video that gets me a lit­tle choked up ev­ery time I see it. We worked at it since I was 5 or 6, be­fore I ever knew we were work­ing. I was just hav­ing fun.

“I would like to re­place that with a mem­ory in about six days.” On Father’s Day. Where he could head to Con­necti­cut as a mul­ti­ple ma­jor cham­pion and the No. 1 player in the world.

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