CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Last month, Justin Thomas stood behind the 18th green at Royal Birkdale, waiting to congratulate one of his pals on another major victory.
Wearing basketball shorts and a sweatshirt, Thomas, who had missed the cut two days earlier, politely answered questions about Jordan Spieth’s wild back nine, his remarkable ability to rebound from calamity, and what type of debauchery would ensue on their plane ride home.
This spot was nothing new for Thomas, of course. Once the mainstream sports media learned that Spieth and Thomas had competed against each other since they were 14, they became a package deal. But now Spieth had won again, resuming a historic major pace, and Thomas couldn’t help but feel as though he was losing ground.
“He’s not mad because Jordan wins,” said Mike Thomas, Justin’s father and swing coach. “He’s happy for Jordan. But he’s like, I’ve beaten Jordan before, and Jordan is winning [majors], so why can’t I do this, too?”
Sometimes, that’s all the motivation a player needs. A month after The Open, Thomas won his own major, surviving Quail Hollow’s notoriously difficult closing stretch to capture the PGA Championship.
This time, it was Spieth who waited behind the green to welcome his buddy into the major club.
“So awesome, dude,” he said.
The youth movement on the PGA Tour is here to stay, and these fun, rich, congenial, ambitious, social-media savvy and fiercely competitive 20-somethings seem to be propelling each other to new heights.
Gone is the edginess, the animosity, the simmering tension of other eras.
Jack and Arnie.
Faldo and Norman.
Tiger and Phil.
Today’s young stars forged these friendships a decade ago, when they were battling on the AJGA circuit. But now, instead of needling each other during practice rounds or heated games of Ping-Pong, they’re vying for a piece of history and the biggest titles in golf, all while raking in millions, flying in private jets and socializing with other famous athletes.
The meteoric spike in prize and endorsement money may have dulled the motivation for the Tour’s middle class, but the elite, overflowing with swagger and ego, remain locked in an arms race, and no one wants to get left behind or forfeit bragging rights.
Do television viewers prefer bitter rivals over best buds? We’ll find out definitively over the next few years. But there’s little doubt this chummy dynamic has raised the quality of play, if not the intensity.
“It’s cool because you can learn so much from watching your friends play well and get the job done,” Rickie Fowler said. “It’s fun to see because it also motivates you to go out and push yourself to another level.
“It’s fun to see them play well and win, but at the same time it’s even more satisfying when you get to go out and beat all your buddies.”
On Sunday, it was Fowler who once again had a front-row seat. Make no mistake, he was thrilled for one of his closest friends, documenting Thomas’ speech, signing duties and plane ride home with the Wanamaker Trophy for his millions of Snapchat followers. But to hear Fowler on the 18th green, the moment clearly was bittersweet.
“It’s a good kind of rivalry between all the young guys,” he said. “We’re all good friends. We all travel together. We all play practice rounds together. JT and I live right down the street from each other. It’s only going to push me even harder to want to get back and go beat him up the next time we tee it up.”
Members of the popular spring-break crew aren’t the only beneficiaries of the new fratty vibe on Tour.
After winning the U.S. Open, Brooks Koepka credited his friendship with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. After all, they work out together. Practice together. Play together. Wherever they are – in the gym, on the range, on the course – the bash brothers are competing. Partly through osmosis, then, Koepka became a major champion.
“Whenever you’re really good friends with somebody, that’s what happens, isn’t it?” said Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott. “If you can do it, I can do it.”
And that’s what makes this new breed so appealing. Sure, there’s respect and admiration among the young stars, but there also is a serious case of trophy envy.
“That kind of shows where the game is right now, where all of us are,” Thomas said. “Obviously we all want to win. We want to beat the other person. But if we can’t win, then we at least want to enjoy it with our friends.
“I know it’s going to make them even more hungry, just like it did for me, seeing Jordan at the British.”
And just like it likely will for Fowler, who, during a five-minute interview Sunday, alternated between praising his pal and lamenting his own mistakes that cost him the title.
Unprompted, he said: “My time is coming. It’s not long.”
His friends will be waiting.