Not so long ago, Justin Thomas wasn’t known as the best play-er to never win a major. He was known as the best friend of a player who’d won three. To casual fans, Thomas was the other guy. The other touted twentysomething, competing in the shadow of his buddy, Jordan Spieth.
Close in age (Thomas, 24, is three months older), they’d been close in other ways for nearly half their lives, rising through the junior ranks together, their families often staying at one another’s homes as the wunderkinds competed in the same events.
After leading opposing teams in collegiate matches (Spieth at Texas, Thomas at Alabama), they both turned pro in 2013. But while Spieth quickly soared to superstardom, Thomas toiled at the spotlight’s edge. It wasn’t easy for him, playing second fiddle to a friend he referred to as golf’s “golden child.” But rather than wallow in self-pity, he politely fielded questions about Spieth while quietly turning frustration into fuel.
How far that fiery alchemy helped propel him is evidenced by the position in which Thomas finds himself today, fresh off a dominating season that featured five wins, including his first major, and the FedEx Cup title.
No longer the other guy, Thomas has emerged as his own man. Check that. He is the man: the reigning PGA champ, the Tour’s leading money winner, and, in a contest that really was no contest, GOLF’s 2017 Player of the Year.
The five wins were a big factor, but so were the ways in which Thomas went about them. At the CIMB Classic, his first victory of the wraparound season, he closed with a 64 on Sunday to surge past fellow young gun Hideki Matsuyama. Three months later, on Oahu, he scorched the field at the Sony Open, seven shots clear of his closest pursuer, for his second Tour title in as many weeks. His four-day total of 253, the lowest 72-hole tally in PGA Tour history, was set up by another record-smasher. In the opening round, Thomas became the youngest Tour pro of all time to shoot a tournament 59.
Thomas drew slack-jawed double takes throughout the season—at both the numbers he put up and the tee-ball power he produced. But just as eye-catching were his deadly wedges and his Spiethian work with the flatstick.
Thomas didn’t just go low. He dug deep. Witness his bloodless 7-iron over water on the par-3 17th at Quail Hollow, a shot that led to birdie with the Wanamaker Trophy hanging in the balance. Or the 68 he scraped out en route to victory at TPC Boston, with his swing askew and Spieth and other alphas nipping at his spikes.
HOW SPARKLING WAS HIS SEASON?
Even when Thomas lost, he won. At the season-ending Tour Championship, he finished second to Xander Schauffele but walked off with a $10 million FedEx Cup check. The next week, just for giggles, he went 3-1-1 in the American romp at the Presidents Cup.
An only child, from Kentucky, Thomas is his family’s third generation of golfer. Like his grandfather, Paul, a club pro from Ohio who competed in the U.S. Open, Thomas’s father, Mike, is a PGA professional who never had to do much prodding to get his son into the game. Almost as soon as he could toddle, Justin was shadowing his dad around the practice range and pro shop at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Ky. By 18 months, he had taken his first swings with a persimmon 2-wood, employing a cross-handed grip.
His father tried to guide him without over-grooming. “I’ve seen it done wrong so many times,” Mike Thomas said earlier this year. “It was more important that we were friends than that he was a good player.”
Thomas got good anyway. A standout on the junior circuit, he starred in high school and, at age 16, entered and made the cut at the Tour’s 2009 Wyndham Championship. The following year, he finished runner-up in the United States Junior Amateur.
College brought more success: a win in his first start at the University of Alabama; collegiate player of the year honors as a freshman; a team NCAA title in his sophomore season; and, that same year, selection to the U.S. Walker Cup squad.
When Thomas turned pro, he joined a Tour that had a distinctively post-Tiger feel, a Tour defined by young talent, astounding purses and a pervading sense of amity.
Some fans bemoan the lack of bitter rivalries, but they’re looking at it all wrong. Today’s generation are a chummy group who applaud one another and share private jets—but who pull no punches when the peg goes into the ground.
Like Jordan Spieth before him, Justin Thomas has made it clear that being besties doesn’t mean you don’t want to beat each other’s brains out on the golf course. He has even shown a willingness to act on that.
After all, what are friends for?