NAPA, Calif.—Justin Thomas walked across the practice green at Silverado Resort and Spa in the fading evening light and there was his good pal, Emiliano Grillo, waiting for him.
They tried to put each other in a headlock, failed, and laughed. Grillo, a new PGA Tour member who is from Argentina, was waiting to see if his 15 under par score would hold and make him the winner of the Frys.com Open. He had just holed a 24-footer for birdie on the final hole to close out Thomas and Tyrone Van Aswegen, who had finished at 14 under and were hoping for a playoff of their own.
“Emiliano told me he just wanted to make that putt to beat me, he didn’t care about anything else,” Thomas said with a laugh. “He was just messing around. I hadn’t seen him in a while. He’s really good. I’m happy to have him out here.”
Thomas had been sitting on a chair on the practice range waiting to see if he’d get to play some more golf. He was fiddling with his cell phone when a loud roar from the 18th green caused him to turn around. It was Grillo’s birdie.
Thomas, 22, is one of the players expected to be among the next big things on tour. He grew up in Louisville, he played college golf at Alabama and already on the PGA Tour, he’s done just about everything but win. Thomas shot 69-69 on the weekend at Silverado and settled for a tie for third.
He has had nine top-10 finishes and won more than $2.7 million and has been in contention in a handful of tour events, but he’s still looking for that win.
“It’ll happen, it’s just a matter of where and when,” Thomas said. “It hurts not to win but it happens. The thing I take out of this week is, I didn’t play very well the last three days and I didn’t drive it well.”
Thomas, a big-hitter, failed to birdie the par-5 16th or 18th holes on the way in or he might have joined Kevin Na and Grillo in a playoff. On the other hand, after a poor pitch, he holed a clutch eight-foot par putt on the 17th hole that nearly spun out.
“Seventeen probably hurts me more than 16 or 18,” Thomas said. “Those were tough pins to get close to today. I was in great position, I just hit a terrible pitch shot. That’s a weakness in my game that I need to work on.”
Thomas and Grillo are linked by being a part of a group of players unofficially known as the Class of 2011—they finished high school that year, or were scheduled to, and now they’ve all taken different routes to the PGA Tour. They were long-time competitors in amateur golf and, for most, briefly in college.
Grillo turned pro and skipped college in favor of playing the European Tour. He holed a 25-footer for birdie on the final hole to win a Web.com Tour qualifying series earlier this month to earn his PGA Tour privileges.
The star of the Class of 2011, of course, is Jordan Spieth, who won a pair of majors this year. He left the University of Texas after one season, a decision no one is second-guessing now. There’s also Stanford star Patrick Rodgers. He and Thomas share an apartment with maid service in south Florida. Rodgers shot 70 on Sunday and tied for sixth.
Yeah, as the tour slogan indicates, these guys are good.
Let’s not forget Florida State’s Daniel Berger, the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year, and Georgia Tech alum Ollie Schniederjans, a three-time All-American who stayed an amateur to play the U.S. and British Opens last summer. He played the Frys.com on a sponsor’s exemption and tied for 48th.
It’s a tough league to be in when one of the guys in your “class” that you’re trying to keep up with is Spieth.
Grillo’s playoff win over Na leaps him over Berger and Thomas in the Class of 2011 race, plus it gets Grillo a spot in the Masters. It also earned him a congratulatory text from Spieth.
“I’m definitely closer to him,” Grillo joked of Spieth. “What do I need, five more wins and two majors?”
These young players will be heard from again, maybe not that soon. Thomas will play twice more in Asia before the year ends and then conclude his season at the McGladrey’s Classic.
Grillo showed an almost Spieth-like resiliency, bouncing back from a series of mistakes.
“It’s the greatest moment of my golfing life,” Grillo admitted later.
It could’ve been a turning point at the ninth hole. Grillo and Kyle Reifers, playing together, were one-two on the leaderboard. Grillo hit a so-so approach to 40 feet while Reifers, in trouble off the tee, had a restricted backswing from under a tree for his third shot. He made a heck of a swing. His ball barely cleared the front bunker but unfortunately, it hit on the downslope of a small mound and shot across the green as if out of a cannon.
From behind the green, he was pretty much dead. His flop shot hit hard on the firm green and ran off the front. Reifers and his caddie walked to the ball as he prepared to play his fifth shot on the par 5. At least he had an uphill chip.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Reifers says.
Was he talking about the bounce on his approach shot or the run-out on his flop shot? Same difference.
“Put this one in, buddy!” his caddie encouraged.
Reifers chipped it to four feet right of the pin, a hair offline, and lipped out the putt. It was a double bogey on a birdie hole, the equivalent of a triple, and he wasn’t able to recover.
Grillo, meanwhile, gunned his birdie putt five feet past and missed the return. Also a costly bogey. It turned out to be not that costly when he holed a shot from the greenside bunker for an unlikely birdie at the tenth.
Grillo made two more bogeys on the back nine and two more birdies, then eventually won the playoff with another birdie on the second hole.
It was a good way for the tournament to end because most of the other contenders put on a clinic on how not to win. Silverado’s firm greens, tough pins, a little bit of breeze and a dose of nerves made scoring suddenly difficult on a course where Brendan Steele led after 54 holes with a score of 14 under par.
The winning score, it turned out, was only 15 under.
How bad was it? Let’s rank the finishes.
Jason Bohn, 42, a two-time tour winner, had the solo lead after nearly acing the par-3 5th hole and was in the pole position with two par 5s coming in. Then he chunked a sand wedge shot from just outside 50 yards at the 16th. Chili-dipped. Hit it fat. Every golfer has done it. Then he failed to get up and down, missing a six footer for par. It was a bad fail.
Next was Steele, who suddenly quit hitting fairways and greens. He struggled home in 76.
Louisiana State alum Andrew Loupe, playing in the last group with Steele, posted 74.
Finally, there was the class of the leaderboard going into Sunday, Justin Rose, ranked seventh in the world. He was tied for the lead midway through the round—at least five other players had a share of the lead at some point.
But Rose settled for a disappointing 72. As he walked across the putting green en route to the clubhouse for a quick exit, he stopped to sign a few autographs, one of them on a T-shirt for a fan who offered commiserations.
“Ah, I just couldn’t get it going today,” Rose said. “Five bogeys” He shook his head. “That’s terrible!”
Then Rose disappeared into the Silverado clubhouse, leaving this brand new PGA Tour season to find its own way.
Grillo’s win, meanwhile, means he will find his way to the Masters in April, a stunning development considering Grillo was just battling on the Web.com Tour a month ago trying to get on the PGA Tour.
“Every time you say Masters,” Grillo said Sunday night, beaming, “I will smile.”