Tour Confidential: Breaking Down Justin Thomas’s Record-Setting Week

January 16, 2017
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Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. After shooting an opening-round 59 at the Sony Open in Hawaii, Justin Thomas said that if he had to choose one or the other, he’d take the sub-60 score over a victory in the tournament. Thomas made that a moot point with his record-setting seven-shot victory, but it begs the question: Do you agree with him?

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Personally, I’d take the victory. That Thomas sees it differently reminds us 1) how successful he has been at such a young age and 2) how much money there is in the game. It’s pretty dizzying to think that a player of his age could already be thinking about side-records over wins, but that’s where we are in this modern age of sports. And then there’s the tournament itself. No way he’d have the same view if this were, say, the U.S. Open.

John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): I agree with Josh, and I suspect had Justin not won the week before he would have said the same. A 59 is great, but at the end of the day, thanks to captain Furyk, you’ll need to go two lower now to actually set a record. Could 59 be the new 62? Uh Oh.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Oh, got to go with the W. Wins make your life possible. Fifty-nines are freaks of nature and good bar-room talk.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): It’s good talk, but I like Thomas’s answer. It shows he’s pushing himself to break new barriers. Winning a Tour event? Been there, done that. But he realizes you only get so many shots at history.

Shane Bacon, golf analyst, Fox Sports (@shanebacon): Shooting a 59 is prettier for the headlines, but accolades are based on 72-hole results, not one hot round with the putter. If it had been 58, or even 57 to take the record away from Furyk, I would probably agree with him, but we saw how easy this golf course played this week for the entire field. The win will eventually matter a lot more for Thomas and his drive to be known as one of the very best in the world.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): He’s still really young, and maybe at this point, these are golf belt notches for Justin Thomas: Win a PGA Tour event? Check. Defend in a PGA Tour event? Check. Win in the U.S.? Check (at Kapalua). OK, so what else is there? Win a major? Sure. Make a Ryder Cup team? Of course. Shoot a 59? Why not? And now that he’s broken a serious all-time mark, for lowest 72 holes, goodness. He’s going to have to start a new checklist.

2. A day after Thomas went historically low, Woody Austin shot 59 at the Diamond Resorts Invitational, which used the Stableford points system. Since 2013, there have been six sub-60 rounds posted on the PGA and tours, including a pair of 58s. Is it time to end the 59 Watch and set our sights a little lower?

Sens: The pros are always going to keep setting their sights lower. For those of us looking on, I don’t think we need to look past the 59 so much as we have to keep the many 59s in context. What was the course like? The conditions? The setup? The pressure of the moment? Not all 59s are created equal.

Wood: See above answer! I think they do. Fifty-nine will always be a magical number though. I think the reason is that most of these really good/great players will have scores of chances to win golf tournaments in their careers, but unless their last name is Furyk they’ll only have one shot at a 59. That’s just how difficult it is. Remember Phil’s reaction to the horseshoe lipout in Phoenix for 59 (the one in which Bones was taken out immediately by a sniper)? And Phil is a guy with five majors and over 40 victories, so the rarity of the occasion has everything to do with it.

Bacon: Why not love and embrace every run at 59?! I’ve been so confused by people around social media this past week trying to find a way to discredit the idea of a sub-60 round. Think about the legends of the game: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods … none of those guys were ever able to fire a 59 on the PGA Tour. It’s really, really hard to do, even if the guys are mentally stronger now and refuse to fear the idea of going historically low. I love each one, and will continue to love them. Did you see the way Jordan Spieth reacted when that eagle putt dropped for Thomas? He knew how special it was, and he’s the fifth-ranked player in the world with multiple majors.

Bamberger: Anything sub-60 is goofy-low. It is happening more now because courses are shorter than they have ever been on Tour, in relation to how far the players hit the driver-7-iron combination. (About 400 yards in the late 1970s; about 460 today.) Still, 59 and 58 and before too long 57, anything with a 5 takes our breath away, since so many of us shoot nine-hole scores that begin with the same number.

Ritter: I equate 59 to a perfect game in baseball, even though there have been a far greater number of perfecto’s. Not all 59s are created equal, and all are special in their own way.

Passov: Michael, it’s not just that courses are playing shorter, it’s that conditioning is so far superior to what it used to be. Superb fairway lies and near-perfection on the putting surfaces helps contribute to these low numbers. And yes, factoring in conditions is a must. No wind in Hawaii, flat greens, manageable rough is a recipe for serious red numbers. I think 59 remains a worthy, stop-what-you’re-doing-and-turn-to-the-golf barrier, but look at it in the context of how the rest of the field has fared. When you’re five or six better than anyone else that day, that’s a phenomenal achievement. If there are a healthy smattering of 62s and 63s, then that 11-under-par 59 doesn’t look quite so magnificent.

3. Despite collecting four victories in his first 70 PGA Tour starts and setting the Tour’s 72-hole scoring record at the Sony, Thomas has played largely in the shadow of friendly rival Jordan Spieth. Both men are the ripe old age of 23. Look into your crystal ball and tell us which player will have achieved more when the calendar turns to 2025.

Sens: Spieth. The competition just keeps getting stiffer and winning big tournaments keeps getting tougher. Spieth already has two majors. All things considered, that’s a huge head start.

Wood: Agree with Josh again. The head start is going to be very difficult to overcome. Justin will win major(s), but there are a lot of great players who have only won one or two majors in their careers. I know I’m jumping the gun here, but the interesting thing to me will be Paris in 2018. I’d have a hard time seeing the Reed/Spieth pairing break up, but if it did I’d say a Spieth/Thomas pairing would be a distinct possibility. And if it does happen, I’ll play with Patrick, because I think he could figure out a way to win even from the places I’d put him.

Bacon: It has to be Spieth, even with the way Thomas is playing right now. Jordan will be a factor at the Masters virtually every year if his first three starts at Augusta National have shown us anything, and he won twice in a “down year” back in ’16. Also, while Thomas has been doing his thing, Spieth has gone on a sneaky little run himself, finishing 1st-T6-T3-3rd in his last four worldwide starts. He’s close to winning again himself, he just needs his pal to stop making so many dang birdies.

Ritter: Thanks to his run at the Slam in ’15, Spieth proved he’s a threat to win any major on the calendar. JT is on a heater, but he needs to win one major to even make this a debate.

Bamberger: Spieth already has a huge lead. Two majors is a career. Spieth.

Passov: I’m not as sure as my colleagues on this one–but I’ll agree. Thomas did himself no favors in the mass recognition department by making his first two PGA Tour wins middle-of-the-night affairs in Malaysia. We need to see Justin Thomas succeed at some point on a tougher track, in tougher conditions, where he can’t overpower a layout. That said, I think he will, and that he’ll be in the mix for supremacy in 2025…right behind Spieth.

4. The naming of Jim Furyk as the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain was widely lauded. Furyk ranks second all-time in appearances for the red, white and blue, with 10, but his record is only 10-20-4. What one trait will make him a successful Ryder Cup captain?

Wood: Meticulous/Diligence. Jim will make a great captain because everyone knows he does everything in his power to prepare. He leaves no stone unturned. Now that the U.S. Ryder Cup team has a blueprint and that Jim was involved in every aspect of its development AND first time implementation — both being a member of the task force and a vice captain for Davis Love at Hazeltine — I’m sure he is way ahead of the game looking forward to 2018. And I SAY meticulous/diligence, but what I really mean is Tabitha.

Sens: Took the words out of my keyboard. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also had experience as a captain’s assistant. You’ve got to figure he’s learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t, and how to strike that fine balance that conveys intensity all the while encouraging his players to stay loose and have fun.

Bamberger: Dogged determination. Straight-forwardness. Furyk doesn’t believe the hype. He believes in scores. He should have a good team, and he’ll almost surely manage the squad well. He’s smart.

Ritter: He won’t be outworked. He won’t be underprepared. He’ll be popular in the locker room. This was a slam-dunk choice.

Bacon: You have to think his relationship, both on these Ryder Cup teams and competitively for so many years on Tour, is a huge help to his hope for back-to-back American wins. He knows these guys, who they want to play with and the recipe for success from both Paul Azinger in ’08 as a player and this past year as an assistant captain. Ryder Cup records are incredibly overrated in my opinion (Was the team they were playing red hot? Was his partner nonexistent?), so I’m not worried at all about what he did as a player. He’s 1-0 if you ask me, because him being a captain is all that really matters as we look ahead to 2018.

Passov: His straightforward candidness is a huge asset. He’s pretty unusual among Tour pros in that he’ll always give you well-considered responses. He can get a little prickly if provoked, but the fact that he’ll still answer the question is laudable. Those communication skills and openness should make him a very popular captain among the players and the media.

5. Rory McIlroy put a new driver in the bag for his 2017 debut at the SA Open, and the results were encouraging. Though he lost in a three-hole playoff to Graeme Storm, McIlroy hit some prodigious tee shots and had rounds of 67, 68, 67 and 68. The bad news is that he experienced such severe back pain during the second round that he considered withdrawing. Are you more encouraged by his strong start or more concerned with his pending MRI?

Sens: The MRI without a doubt. Let’s hope this isn’t the beginning of more serious trouble for McIlroy. As a cautionary tale, see Tiger, Jason Day … and well, take your pick of any professional athlete who has tried to compete injured.

Ritter: It doesn’t sound like this is serious, but anytime you’re sliding into a tube to get scanned, it’s a concern.

Wood: The MRI. What’s the line from Jurassic Park? “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” There is no question that weightlifting, strength training, etc., will give you short-term benefits in golf, but I think the jury is still out on what it does to your body in the long term when it comes to playing competitive golf. Will we see more explosive but shorter careers? I think it’s very possible. So seeing guys who look like they’re in incredible physical condition (and they are) like Rory and Jason come down with injuries is a little scary.

Bacon: Obviously any injury to one of the “set your alarm at 3 a.m. just to watch him play live” guys out there is scary, but I feel Rory won’t tee it up again if he’s worried about something happening to his body long term. I’d say concern is there, but Rory is lucky not to have that stubborn trait in him that we’ve see in some of our superstars of the past and knows the first event he really, really has to be healthy for is 80 days away. As for the playoff loss, I was surprised to see Rory is now 1-5 all-time in playoffs on both the PGA and European tours. You can’t be concerned at that, but it is definitely shocking considering his talent level and heightened ability to close in regulation.

Bamberger: This MRI sounds very precautionary, so as an event I don’t imagine it’s very meaningful. But all these players have to ask themselves if they are really using the gym the right way. The most natural-looking golf physique I’ve ever seen was Tiger Woods circa 1996. But Ed Fiori was still able to beat him.

Passov: I’m more encouraged by his strong start than worried about the MRI. If it were really bad, he would have (and should have) withdrawn after the second round. Still, Rory–very cool that you chose to go play in an ancient national championship, with a glittering list of past winners, but those flights to South Africa can’t be great for one’s back.

6. Inauguration Day is Friday. Donald Trump will become the latest in a long line of golfing presidents. Which Commander in Chief would you most like to tee it up with? And where?

Sens: Who I’m playing with is always more important to me than where I’m playing. If I get to play with a Prez, I’m not really worried about the venue, though if he’s got an in at Cypress, I’d accept. As for the Commander in Chief, I’d take Obama. A smart, funny guy whose politics I mostly respect (boy, am I glad the comments section on this page has been disabled). And plus: I’m pretty confident I could beat him.

Wood: Definitely Bernie Sanders, but I’m one of the five liberals on Tour in any capacity (I won’t divulge the other four to protect their privacy). So if we’re playing hypotheticals and if I’m playing with a president AND it’s Bernie Sanders, well, you can figure out my reasons are outside of the world of golf. All joking aside, I would have to say JFK. The stories of that time and place in history would be fascinating for me.

Bacon: It would be hard not to jump in that time machine and go back to tee it up with President Kennedy, so he would be first followed by President Obama, mostly because I never refuse a round of golf with a fellow lefty.

Bamberger: Jerry Ford. Talked to him at length late in his life. What a decent man. What an American life he lead. The most athletic of our golfing presidents, and a gent.

Passov: William Howard Taft–who tipped the scales at well over 350 pounds and once took a 27 on a hole at Kebo Valley in Bar Harbor, Maine. We’ll make the tee time there. I’d like to think I could take him down, and actually look semi-svelte standing next to him.