Heading Down The Road
Justin Thomas might be heading down the road, even though he is a decade younger than Johnson and is just getting started on the portrait of his career. For now, the snapshot is pretty good. Thomas often talks to longtime friend Jordan Spieth on various aspects of professional golf, and Spieth was a natural source for the latest quandary. How do you manage the expectations after a blockbuster, breakthrough season? For Thomas, that was in 2017 when his five victories included his first major at the PGA Championship, when he won the FedExCup and was making serious progress toward No. 1 in the world. He had a similar year to Johnson — two victories in 2018 (three for the 2017-18 PGA Tour season, starting with the CJ Cup in South Korea the previous fall). He reached No. 1 in the world. He had a reasonable chance at one major going into the final round, at the PGA Championship, but not for very long. He wound up No. 5 on the World Money List and won the Arnold Palmer Award on the PGA Tour for leading that money list. It was a good year for a 25-year-old who now has the right to demand more.
Thomas fits into the Rose model, and other players, who strive for consis- tency. More than anything, Thomas wanted his bad golf to be better. For the most part, he accomplished that. His best golf, however, was on the road to the Masters. His wedge game nearly took him to two consecutive victories. First, it was a lob wedge he nearly holed on the 72nd hole at the Honda Classic for a birdie to get into a playoff with Luke List, which he won on the first extra hole. A week later in the WGC – Mexico Championship, it was a gap wedge that Thomas holed from the 18th fairway that got him into a playoff with Phil Mickelson. He lost that one to a par by Mickelson. Even so, those two weeks were important building blocks for another strong year. That came to fruition at The Players Championship, even though Thomas was 35,000 feet in the air on his way home when he got the good news: He was No. 1 in the world. Reaching the top of the ranking was as much a product of his five victories and the PGA Championship in 2017. The spring pushed him over the top. After those two good weeks, his first chance to be No. 1 was in another World Golf Championships event, the Dell Tech- nologies Match Play, when Thomas only needed to reach the final. He was one match away, facing Bubba Watson in the semi-finals. Thomas didn’t put up much of a fight, and he lost on the 16th hole. Later, he conceded that No. 1 was on his mind. “I haven’t had such a hard time not thinking about something so much. And that really sucked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest. And I think you’re constantly getting questions about it with the media. But I need to be mentally stronger than that, and understand that it’s just a match,” he said.
Two months later, he tied for 11th at the TPC Sawgrass and was headed home when Johnson shot 72 to finish one shot behind Thomas, leading to a change at the top. “I’m very proud to have gotten there, but it means more to me how long I can hold it,” he said. Thomas held it for four weeks.
Missing was a chance in the majors. Thomas went into the final round at Augusta National too far behind — nine shots — to think about a green jacket, though he must have thought there was a chance when it was over because he played alongside Spieth, who nearly won. He missed the cut in The Open for the second straight year, at least this time managing to keep a nine off the card, though three straight double bogeys on the front nine did him in.
Thomas’ biggest win was at the Bridgestone Invitational, and not just because it was his first World Golf Championships title. It was the last time for the best in the world at Firestone, and Thomas had a special guest in the crowd — his grandfather, Paul Thomas, a career club pro who played at Firestone in the 1960 PGA Championship. He had never seen his grandson win. Family matters.
Bubba Watson also won three times, two of them early in the year in the Genesis Open at Riviera (his third title at Riviera, though not enough for it be known as “Bubba’s Alley”) and the Dell Technologies Match Play, and then later the Travelers Championship. Jon Rahm won three times, two of them on the European Tour and once on the PGA Tour. Another big year on the two main tours belonged to Matt Wallace of England, who won three times to move into the top 50 and earn his first trip to the Masters. Other players ended long droughts. Lee Westwood won the Nedbank Challenge for his first European Tour victory since 2014. That same day, Matt Kuchar won the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico for his first PGA Tour victory since 2014. Oddly enough, their victories in 2014 also were the same week. Charles Howell won the final PGA Tour event of 2018, his first victory in 11 years. Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson also had gone more than five years without winning. Ditto for Woods, though like so many other aspects of golf, he’s in a different conversation.
As notable as those who won were two who did not. Jordan Spieth began the year at No. 2 in the world, and he had a mathematical chance when he left Hawaii after the opening two tournaments to regain the top ranking. Instead, he went the other direction and never turned it around. Spieth was behind from the start because of a bout with mononucleosis in December that slowed his preparations. He wasn’t making as many putts as he normally does. He missed the cut at the Valspar Championship while playing with Woods. Spieth was worried at the Dell Technologies Match Play when he lost a match to Patrick Reed, later calling it the worst he had ever played as a professional. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to make a putt at Augusta,” he said. The putting finally came around; the long game left him. It was that kind of a year. And for the first time as a pro, he didn’t have a trophy to show for it. More telling was that Spieth finished at least 10 shots out of the lead in 14 of the 23 stroke-play tournaments he played (that includes five missed cuts).
But it was an example of how two tournaments — maybe even two shots — could have changed everything. Spieth nearly rallied from a nine-shot deficit at the Masters and was on the verge of the lowest closing round in Masters history until his tee shot on the 18th clipped a tree and led to bogey. Three months later, he had a share of the lead going into the final round at Carnoustie when one swing on the par-five sixth that sailed right and into a bush led to double bogey on what should have been a birdie hole. So he had two chances at majors, which is what all anyone would want. “For me, I would sit there and say that I’ll never forget those weeks. But statistically for the year, I got off, and this is what I need to fix,” he said. But the pic- ture showed a year in which very little went right until he married his high school girlfriend over Thanksgiving weekend. Spieth ended the year at No. 17. It stood out because of his three majors and 14 worldwide victories and former No. 1 ranking.
Hideki Matsuyama doesn’t have those credentials, and so his year didn’t stand out as much. But it was equally noticeable, mainly because the Japanese star had a chance to reach No. 1 and had a chance to win his first major at the PGA Championship in 2017. He went into the new year at No. 5. More than anything with his swing, Matsuyama was slowed by an injury to his left thumb that caused him to withdraw from the Waste Management Phoenix Open and sit out for six weeks. He played a steady diet of tournaments the rest of the way, just not very well. He didn’t have a top-three finish anywhere in the world for the first time as a pro. Only his late form — three finishes in the top 15 during the FedExCup Playoffs — allowed him to squeak into the Tour Championship. He finished the year at No. 28.
They weren’t alone, of course, but they stood out from where they started the year and their past achievements. The best player to not win in 2018 was Tony Finau. Without winning, he moved up 31 spots to finish the year at No. 9 in the world, and he finished at No. 7 on the World Money List with just under $6.5 million. But he was consistent, particularly in the majors, and he had 12 top-10 finishes. Three of them were in successive weeks in the FedExCup Playoffs, which not only moved him to No. 3 in the standings, it made him an obvious captain’s pick for his first Ryder Cup.