NORTON, Mass. – In what is quickly turning into a high-stakes game of give-and-take, this was inevitable.
After years of forshadowing for both Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, the duo’s lifelong collision course toward each other reached a new level on Labor Day.
On the eve the final round, Spieth said Monday at TPC Boston would be nothing like last week’s final lap at the playoff opener.
He was right. It was better.
There was no Dustin Johnson blasting a ridiculously long tee shot over the corner in a playoff, no heroic putts, just a grinding to and fro that stretched from the opening tee shot and into an early fall evening.
Spoiler alert: Thomas hoisted the hardware, but it was a title bout that has been a decade in the making, the dye first cast when the two 24-year-olds squared off for the first time in a junior event in Mansfield, Texas.
“We battled it out on Sunday and we were about tied and I edged him out that day,” Spieth recalled. “We played a few more tournaments throughout the year and went back and forth.”
And they continue to go back and forth, the most recent edition a final-round shootout at the Dell Technologies Championship that did what so rarely happens in sports – exceed expectations.
Thomas began the final turn tied with Marc Leishman for the lead, but quickly fell behind when Spieth did what Spieth does, beginning his round birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to take the solo lead.
“Obviously a dream start, and then you're not going to keep pace and shoot, you know, 54,” said Spieth, who dropped an overtime decision to Johnson last week on Long Island. “So at some point, you've got to recognize the difficult holes are coming up.”
Spieth would turn in 30, as would Leishman, before they all hit that TPC Boston wall, with the Australian opening the inward loop with three consecutive bogeys to fall into a tie with Spieth and Thomas.
Spieth bookended a pair of bogeys around a birdie at the 13th hole, a rollercoaster where he was tied for the lead (after the 12th hole), leading by himself (after the 13th hole) and one behind Thomas (after No. 14).
It was that kind of day.
All total, there were seven lead changes on the closing nine before Spieth’s putter finally went cold and Thomas pulled away, making methodical birdies at Nos. 13 and 15 to take a two-stroke lead and sealing the victory with a clutch par save at the 16th hole.
“I don't like when my friends beat me. I don't like when people beat me. So I'm putting in work to hopefully beat all them,” said Thomas, who closed with a 66 for a 17-under total and three-stroke victory over Spieth.
In sports, there’s always a fine line between friend and rival. For decades Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson dominated the golf landscape at arm’s length with a relationship that was best described as frosty.
For Thomas and Spieth, however, those roots run far too deep to let competitive differences come between them. That junior event a decade ago was just the start of a truly unique relationship.
“We grew up together,” said Spieth, who moved to first on the playoff points list with his runner-up finish. “You grow up and you watch each other work from when you're 14 years old. We roomed together when we were 14 years old. He's one of my best friends in the whole world.”
Although that friendship has endured, for Thomas there was a twisted pressure by association as he watched Spieth collect titles at an amazing rate.
Thomas joined the PGA Tour in 2015, the same year Spieth won two majors (the Masters and U.S. Open) and five titles total. For so long the duo had been defined competitively by a rivalry that suddenly seemed heavily one-sided.
“Definitely jealousy. I still get jealous,” Thomas said. “Any time any of my friends win and I don't, I'm extremely happy for them, I'm pumped for them, I'm excited but I'm jealous. I wish I had three majors right now. I mean, I'm obviously pleased with one but I wish I had three.”
Thomas joined the Tour winner’s club in late 2015 and has been on a tear this season, winning for the fifth time this week to add to his PGA Championship title and virtually locking up the Player of the Year Award unless something dramatic happens over the last two events (Johnson has four victories this season and Spieth three).
He also became just the fourth player since 1960 with five victories and a major in a season before the age of 25, joining the likes Woods, Jack Nicklaus and, yes, Spieth.
It’s yet another connection in a relationship that has now come full circle, but didn’t begin well for Thomas.
“I was a sore loser, so I was just angry. I probably wasn’t much fun to be around,” Thomas recalled when asked about being beat by Spieth at that junior event 10 years ago.
A few months later, Thomas got his revenge while the two were playing for the U.S. team at the Evian Junior Masters in France. Because he’d finished in the top 3 in the event and Spieth didn’t, Thomas was invited to play in a pro-am with LPGA star Juli Inkster. Thomas had Spieth caddie for him.
“He wasn’t a very good caddie,” Thomas laughed.
But he has since turned into a very good friend and the best of rivals.