More Was To Come
Thomas played the opening two rounds of the Sony Open with Spieth and Berger, making it a trio from the high school Class of ’11. Most peculiar about that round is that Spieth actually hit the ball better. His average proximity to the hole was 18 feet, 4 inches, best in the field for the opening round. Thomas came in at 25 feet, 7 inches. On one hole, Thomas asked Spieth to move his marker because they were on the same line. Thomas would make; Spieth would miss. “Now I know how other guys feel,” Spieth said with a laugh after the round.
Thomas didn’t stop there, of course. He set or tied the PGA Tour scoring record after each of the first three rounds, and then established the new mark of 253 with his seven-shot victory. “I wouldn’t say it’s a good player that’s hot, and I wouldn’t say it’s a birth of a guy, either,” Spieth said. “I would say it’s just a tremendous player who’s already been at that level. It just takes winning a couple of times, I think. Then they start to fall.” Thomas wouldn’t blush at such kind words. He left Hawaii by saying, “I haven’t shown the world my best golf.” More was to come, even if it would take a while.
Spieth would have been among the few who saw the transformation of Thomas. The teenager from Kentucky was slight of build, and even now it is hard to fathom how someone his size (he is listed at 5-foot-10, 145 pounds) can hit for so much power. It wasn’t always like that. His father, Mike Thomas, recalls the early days in junior golf when his son would travel to a tournament, take a look at the course and call his father. “What’s the number?” Mike Thomas would ask him. The number related to how many fairway metals his son would need to reach the par fours or even a par three. But he grew, and he studied, and he learned how to clear his hips and use his speed. If there was a breathtaking moment of such a powerful swing, it came on the 637-yard closing hole at Erin Hills in the third round of the U.S. Open, the final 100 yards or so uphill to an elevated green protected by bunkers. He smashed his drive down the middle and had 310 yards remain- ing when his three wood was so long and so high that it cleared the front bunker and settled eight feet away. He made that for an eagle and became only the fifth player to shoot 63 in U.S. Open history, and the first to do it on a par 72.
That was one of the few shining moments after he left Hawaii. Thomas also made a hole-in-one in the WGC – Mexico Championship that staked him to a one-shot lead going into the final round, which wasn’t enough to hold off Dustin Johnson. Otherwise, he endured six missed cuts and only three top-10s from Hawaii until he reached the end of the major championship season at Quail Hollow Club for the PGA Championship. He felt forgotten, almost as if he were a flash in the pan. His buddies still joked with him that Thomas had yet to win on the mainland of his home country. Those jokes didn’t last for long.
Even as Johnson remained No. 1 in the world, Thomas returned to the top of golf ’s notable characters when he won the PGA Championship. It received attention in so many ways, from being the son and grandson of PGA of America members (his father once served on the PGA board), to his relationship with Spieth and Rickie Fowler, who were among those waiting to celebrate. Mostly, though, this was another young player who ticked an important box at a young age. That’s what Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Spieth all did before him. It stood in contrast with the first major, the Masters, the reminder of how much winning a major haunted Garcia.
Thomas, however, wasn’t quite done with the year. The FedExCup Playoffs, in another sign of youth and depth in golf, also served as a final exam for who would take the postseason honors from PGA Tour Player of the Year, the money title and the Vardon Trophy. The favorites were Thomas and Spieth because each won multiple times and each won a major. Spieth was runner-up in the Northern Trust and the Dell Technologies Championship (the latter won by Thomas) and tied for seventh in the BMW Championship. But down the stretch at East Lake, it was Thomas who challenged at the Tour Championship. And while he came up one shot short to Schauffele, that was enough to win the FedExCup and cap off a year that put him into the conversation of elite players with Spieth, Johnson, McIlroy and Day (even though the latter two fell off in 2017 — more on that later).
Thomas is one of those players who never talks publicly about his goals. He keeps them on his phone, and with the season finally over, he pulled out his phone during his press conference at East Lake and went through the list. That only confirmed that yes, it was a very good year. Among the goals: Win at least one time (he won five times); play in the final group at a major (he did that twice); win a major (check); have a sub-70 scoring average (69.36); finish in the top 10 in half of his starts. “I missed by one,” he said, although he was not about to let that ruin his year. Before long, he came up with a new set of goals, and most likely already ticked one off the list for the 2017-18 season by winning the inaugural CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in South Korea. Even after all he achieved, the press conference in South Korea included a question from one reporter asking what it would take to get Spieth to come to the tournament. It’s still hard to shake the shadow of his longtime friend.
Spieth did more than enough to not be overlooked, though 2017 was as much about how to conquer his own doubts as it was anything related to his game. He was coming off a year that most players his age would love to have. In fact, Spieth met some of the goals he talked about at the start of 2016 by winning multiple times and having a chance in at least one major. It’s just the way that major opportunity went down — a five-shot lead going to the back nine at Augusta National, a quadruple-bogey-seven on the 12th hole to throw it away and slip the green jacket on the shoulders of Danny Willett. And while he won three times, that was his memory. It wasn’t easy to shake. Yes, he had won twice since that Masters meltdown with his spectacular short-game finish at Colonial and a playoff victory in the Australian Open. He even had won with a 54-hole lead (Colonial). But how would he handle a large lead going to the back nine? That question was presented to him at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
Spieth took only 10 putts on the back nine at Pebble Beach and shot a 65 to open up a six-shot lead, his largest through 54 holes in his short PGA Tour career. He played the final round with Brandt Snedeker, a past champion at Pebble who also wields a hot flat stick. From there, all Spieth could do was lose. He passed the test, however, with what might have been the dullest final round on the PGA Tour with the most sensational scenery of sunshine on the Monterey Peninsula. Spieth never let anyone closer than three shots. He made 14 consecutive pars until a 30-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole that was more for show.
It should have reminded him that he can hold the lead, and that he is a good closer. But this wasn’t the Masters. That much was clear a month later when, during a preview of the groups for the WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play, Spieth said he couldn’t wait for the Masters to be over — and it was still two weeks away from starting. “No matter what happens, whether I grab the jacket or I miss the cut or I finish 30th, it will be nice having the Masters go by,” he said. “The Masters lives on for a year. It brings a non-golf audience into golf. And it will be nice once this year’s is finished from my point of view, to be brutally honest with you.”
For the record, he hit into Rae’s Creek in front of the 12th green in the final round for the second year in a row. By then, his Masters already was over. Spieth scratched his way into contention with a 68 on Saturday, leaving him two shots behind, but he never found any momentum on the front nine and took himself out of it quickly. The Masters was over, at least, right? Not really. In his mind, he should have had two green jackets, not one. He should have had three majors at that point, not two. He had gone five consecutive majors since the 2016 Masters without finishing in the top 10. It still weighed on him, as did that reputation he wanted as a strong closer. That was put to test, too, in one of his most difficult rounds of the year that is only remembered for the way it ended — Spieth holed a bunker shot on the 18th green at the TPC River Highlands to beat Daniel Berger in a playoff at the Travelers Championship. Even though he never trailed in the final round, Spieth knew he was struggling with the greens and with his putting stroke. He knew he didn’t have his best stuff. He just wanted to get to the finish line as quickly as possible. “I wanted the holes to go by quickly. That’s the only time I could say that about my wins,” Spieth said later. At stake for him that day — and this, too, goes back to the Masters — was not just another PGA Tour title, but a chance to burnish his reputation as a closer. Players will take a win in any circumstances. Comebacks are cool. But the great players want to be known as closers. Never mind what he did at Pebble. This was another opportunity that Spieth felt he was about to lose until he got up-and-down from par from the front bunker on the 18th hole to get into the playoff, and then found himself in the same bunker. No one holes more shots from off the green than Spieth, do they? Even so, this was one of the highlights of the year outside the majors — the blast of sand, the hole-out, Spieth slinging his sand wedge, his caddie throwing the rake and the two jumping and colliding with one another as the gallery exploded with cheers.
He closed out the victory. He improved to 8-5 with at least a share of the 54-hole lead, which Spieth thought was “terrific,” understanding that Tiger Woods (57-5 on the PGA Tour) set a standard that might never be topped. That reputation was challenged twice more, on no bigger stage than Royal Birkdale for The Open Championship. Staked to a three-shot lead, Spieth looked tight for 12 holes until his wayward tee shot on the 13th — which led to the memorable penalty drop on the practice range and the remarkable bogey save — sent him to one of the great closing stretches in major championship history. That gave him the third leg of the career slam, and turned 2017 into a great year no matter what else happened. And because it was a major, that might have been enough for him to bury the demons of the 2016 Masters.
Consider how he felt about The Open when he looked back on it two weeks later. “I had to get over some added pressure and fear, which shouldn’t ever happen — fear of what I was going to have to answer and how long I would have to answer,” Spieth said. “It’s annoying more than anything. What’s asked and what’s published is ultimately what the public ends up thinking. And it’s then your reputation to an extent. The only reputation I should care about is first off, what I think of myself. Secondly, what our teams think. Third, the other guys, my peers. After that, you shouldn’t care.” But he did. Three weeks later, he lost a five-shot lead with 13 holes to play at the Northern Trust, where Dustin Johnson beat him in a playoff. He didn’t fret that one. He didn’t waste time wondering how differently it should have turned out. It helped that Spieth had the claret jug with him that week.
Johnson, more than any other player this year, had reason to wonder “What might have been?” He began the year as the dominant player, minus the No. 1 ranking. Johnson was the PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2016 after his U.S. Open title among his three victories. Paulina Gretzky was due in the summer with their second child, meaning Johnson would be spending more time in the gym than usual. There was nothing early on that would suggest how much he would elevate his game, his presence, and in some respects, his level of intimidation. He was a distant third at Kapalua. He was runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi. And then at Torrey Pines, in a marquee grouping to promote TaylorMade products, he played the opening two rounds with Tiger Woods and Jason Day. All three of them missed the cut. Two weeks later, he spent three days at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am with Spieth, his regular partner, and couldn’t keep up. And that’s when Johnson shifted into another gear.
Asked at the start of the year the one tournament he would love to win — minus the majors, of course — Johnson didn’t hesitate to mention Riviera. He considers himself a part-Californian because of the time he spends with the Gretzky family at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks. In the previous three years of the Genesis Open, he finished two shots behind twice and lost in a playoff another time. There was no stopping him this time. He opened with rounds of 66-66 in the rain-challenged event that led to a 36-hole final. Johnson shot 64 on Sunday morning in the third round, finishing with three birdies to build a five-shot lead. Winning was not the question. It was whether Johnson would break the oldest 72-hole scoring record on the PGA Tour — 20-under 264 by Lanny Wadkins in 1985. He was 20 under with 12 holes to play. Having made only one bogey all week, he finished with three bogeys over the final 10 holes because it no longer mattered. Winning mattered. And typical of Johnson, he didn’t even know what the record was. But he knew a victory would get him to No. 1 in the world, and that was just the start.