A month ago Justin Thomas swigged beer from the Claret Jug won at the British Open by his good friend, Jordan Spieth. On Sunday, by winning the PGA Championship, Thomas joined Spieth as the youngest winners of a major currently on Tour, both of them just 24 years old.
And just maybe a rivalry for the ages has been born, one that could go a long way toward filling the void left by Tiger Woods’ disappearance from golf.
With his three majors already, Spieth is the golden boy of his sport, a young superstar with charisma and a knack for winning that gives him a notable Q rating among even casual fans.
But in the golf world Thomas has long been touted as a can’t-miss talent on about the same level as Spieth. A couple of months ago he introduced himself on the national stage, shooting a 63 at the U.S. Open, and on Sunday he showed a Spieth-like ability to handle major-championship pressure, playing a brilliant back nine to pull away and win by two strokes.
And this was on an extremely difficult set-up at Quail Hollow in North Carolina, a golf course that yielded a winning score of eight-under par and caused implosions by several players at the top of the leaderboard — especially the final three holes, a killer stretch known as the Green Mile.
Most notably, another young star, Hideki Matsuyama, who perhaps was feeling the pressure of trying to become the first Japanese golfer to win a major, fell apart with three bogeys on the back nine on Sunday after taking the lead on the 10th hole.
Thomas, meanwhile, made some clutch putts, especially late in the round. On No. 16 he holed a six-footer to maintain a one-shot lead and on the 221-yard Par-3 17th hole, he hit a seven-iron to 15 feet and drained the birdie — only the fourth made on the hole all day.
It added up to a flawless performance — until the 18th hole, when Thomas played it safe with a three-shot lead and made bogey to seal the victory.
And just as he had waited to congratulate his friend at the British Open, there was Spieth — and Ricky Fowler too — on Sunday as Thomas came off the green to give him a hug and shout, “That’s awesome.”
Surely it’s just the start of something big between the two.
As must-see as Tiger was at the height of his powers, the one thing missing during his dominance was a true rival to push him and give us more theater for many of his 14 wins in majors.
Phil Mickelson was the obvious choice, but for years he couldn’t ever get past Tiger to win majors, and though he finally got over the hump to win five, Tiger was rarely a factor in those championships.
Of course, there clearly won’t be any of the old Tiger-Phil tension between Spieth and Thomas. They’ve been close friends for year and obviously pull for one another, as we’ve seen.
But that won’t make a great rivalry any less captivating.
As it is, Thomas is threatening to steal some of the spotlight from Spieth. He has now won four tournaments in this PGA Tour season to two for his buddy, and with a major now under his belt he’s the favorite for Player of the Year.
In addition, though Spieth was never really a factor at Quail Hollow, finishing in a tie for 28th place, Thomas did win the tournament that could have given his friend the career grand slam.
All of which adds some drama to the Tour’s end-of-season playoffs and set the stage for the majors next year.
You never know in golf, though. In recent years the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Dustin Johnson all looked ready at times to become a worthy successor to Tiger as a truly dominant player, only to lose the magic touch at majors.
For that matter, there are so many good, young players in the sport these days that it’s a solid bet nobody will ever be the next Tiger.
Spieth is surely still No. 1 on the list of candidates, with his three majors and his exquisite putting touch, but now Thomas is officially on his friend’s tail.
Here’s hoping they give us plenty of back-nine drama in majors for the next 20 years or so.