Thomas joins the club - the majors club

By Ryan LavnerAugust 14, 2017, 2:11 am

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There’s no way to prepare for it, no mental exercises to gird yourself for the stomach-churning mix of anticipation and expectation and realization.

There’s no way to know how you’ll react when the crowd is chanting your name. 

And when the Steadicam is a few feet from your face.

And when the unmistakable sensation hits that your heart might jump right out of your chest.

And yet …

Justin Thomas – the occasionally brilliant, often combustible 24-year-old – felt a strange calmness all day Sunday at Quail Hollow.

In fact, he was so calm, and so confident, that he told his girlfriend, Jillian Wisniewski, to change her 6:06 p.m. flight home to Chicago.

“I don’t want you to miss this,” he said. “I feel like I’m going to get it done.”

All it took were two big breaks, a timely chip-in and a career shot for Thomas to conquer the toughest closing stretch in golf, emerge from a five-way tie and capture the 99th PGA Championship.

This was no ordinary first-timer.

“I truly felt like I was going to win,” he said.

There is meaningful golf still to play this year, but the PGA put an exclamation point on a breakout campaign for Thomas, who shot 59, set a U.S. Open scoring record, earned a PGA Tour-best fourth victory of the season and now becomes the favorite for Player of the Year.

“It’s huge for me,” he said. “Who knows what will happen, but it’s just big for my year.”

First-time major winners and Quail Hollow’s treacherous back nine shouldn't mix, like flannel shirts and Charlotte humidity, but Thomas played so expertly that he could afford a few slip-ups on the 72nd hole. After a closing 68, he won at 8-under 276, two shots clear of Patrick Reed, Louis Oosthuizen and Francesco Molinari.

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A week that began with Jordan Spieth’s pursuit of the career Grand Slam ended with one of his close friends joining golf’s young elite.

Spieth and Thomas are obviously tight – remember #SB2K17? – but they’ve long had a friendly and complicated relationship, ever since their junior days. The same age, Spieth was always one step ahead, whether it was a U.S. Junior or an NCAA Championship or a PGA Tour breakthrough or a major title. Irritatingly, Thomas became known mostly as Spieth’s “good buddy.”

Despite capturing four Tour titles, Thomas had yet to escape Spieth's considerable shadow, remaining winless in the category – majors – that mattered most.

“Frustration probably isn’t the right word – jealously definitely is,” he said. “I wanted to be doing that, and I wasn’t.”

At the back of the clubhouse Sunday night, Spieth, who had finished four hours earlier and tied for 28th, sought out and hugged Justin's father, Mike Thomas.

“I’ve known you guys too long,” he said.

“We had to join you,” Thomas replied.

Later, when asked to reflect on the budding rivalry, Mike Thomas conceded: “This is huge. This lets Justin know he can do this.”

Most players require a major heartbreak before they’re ready to win one of their own, and Thomas’ disappointment came two months ago at the U.S. Open. In the third round, he fired a tournament-record, 9-under 63 – sorry, Johnny – to surge into the final pairing, one back of the leader. But with a long wait before his final-round tee time, he admitted to getting caught up in the social-media buzz and then lost his patience after a rough start. He dropped into a tie for ninth at Erin Hills, then missed three consecutive cuts.

Thomas’ week at Quail Hollow began inauspiciously, too, with a 2-over 73, but he moved back into contention with a Friday 66.

It was his Friday 69, however, that won him the PGA. Wayward with his ball-striking, he still managed to play the final 12 holes in 3 under to draw within two shots of third-round leader Kevin Kisner.

Before meeting with the media Saturday night, Thomas headed to the range with his dad, the only swing coach he’s ever had. They worked on Thomas’ body lines with his driver and his cut shots with his irons. They focused on his psyche, too.

“You don’t want to end your day on a negative thought,” he said.

Funny, because Thomas has been criticized in some corners for his on-course comportment, for his emotional outbursts, for his slumped shoulders and club slams. All of the blowback prompted a recent heart-to-heart with his dad.

“We’ve spent time the past year asking, Are you emotional or are you angry? Let’s make a distinction,” Mike said. “He’s 24. He’s going to get more mature, and he showed a lot of maturity this week. [Saturday] was the day that he didn’t play well, and his maturity allowed him to grind out a score.”

That maturity also allowed him to stay in the game Sunday after an unsettling opening hole in the final round, when he bladed his greenside bunker shot and needed to hole a 20-footer for bogey.

“I was a lot more comfortable and calm than I thought I would be,” he said.

Thomas made three birdies around the turn to create a logjam at the top. None was more unlikely than the 10th hole.

Needing to hug the left side to carry the bunker, Thomas’ tee shot crashed into the trees.

“Get lucky,” he begged. “Just spit it out for me, please.”

Out came his ball, into the middle of the fairway. 

“See,” he said, returning the club to caddie Jimmy Johnson. “That’s why you ask.”

Even more pleading was necessary on his birdie putt, which hung on the lip of the cup for 12 seconds.

“I threw a little fit to try and see what would happen,” Thomas said, “and gravity took over.”

Said Johnson: “I thought it might be our day, like that might be an omen. You never know. But you have to have good things happen to you to win a golf tournament.”

And they kept happening, like Thomas’ 40-foot chip-in on 13, busting him out of a five-way tie and suddenly giving him a two-shot cushion.

“Probably the most berserk I’ve ever gotten on the course,” he said.

After a clutch save out of the bunker on 16, Thomas launched a 200-yard 7-iron that never left his target on the watery 17th. His ball landed on the ridge and trickled toward the hole, 15 feet away.

“One of the best shots I’ve ever hit in my life,” Thomas said. “That shot, I’ll never forget that vision in my head.”

Nor will he soon forget the roar that followed when his birdie putt dropped.

Anywhere on dry land was the play on the diabolical 18th hole, and Thomas’ bogey cost him nothing but a three-shot margin of victory.

The symmetry was impossible to ignore. His father, Mike, is a PGA professional (Goshen, Ky.). So is his grandfather, Paul, who was watching at home in Columbus, Ohio, and received the first call from the winner. “You’re something else,” Paul said. “This is the first of many.”

Mike Thomas was the first to greet Justin as he walked off the 18th green, the victory all but secured. Charging toward his only son, arms spread wide, Mike engulfed him in a bear hug and spoke for many who witnessed the macho finish.

“That was f------ unbelievable,” he said.

The victory lap continued along the rope line, where they were swarmed by family and friends, by Spieth and by Fowler.

“So awesome, dude,” Spieth said.

“Way to ball out,” added Fowler.

The crowd still buzzing behind them, Justin and Mike Thomas climbed up the scaffolding together. The clubhouse was now in sight. The Wanamaker Trophy was waiting, too.

Shoulder to shoulder, they couldn’t stop smiling, the PGA pro dad and PGA champion son.

Battling mono, Kaufman tied for lead at CME

By Randall MellNovember 19, 2017, 2:05 am

NAPLES, Fla. – Kim Kaufman’s bout with mononucleosis might leave fellow tour pros wanting to catch the fever, too.

A couple months after Anna Nordqvist battled her way into contention at the Women’s British Open playing with mono, and then thrived at the Solheim Cup with it, Kaufman is following suit.

In her first start since being diagnosed, Kaufman posted an 8-under-par 64 Saturday to move into a four-way tie for the lead at the CME Group Tour Championship. It was the low round of the day. She’s bidding to win her first LPGA title.

“I’ve been resting at home for two weeks,” Kaufman said. “Didn’t do anything.”

Well, she did slip on a flight of stairs while recuperating, hurting her left wrist. She had it wrapped Saturday but said that’s mostly precautionary. It didn’t bother her during the round.

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“I’m the only person who can take two weeks off and get injured,” Kaufman joked.

Kaufman, 26, left the Asian swing after playing the Sime Darby Malaysia, returning to her home in South Dakota, to see her doctor there. She is from Clark. She was told bed rest was the best thing for her, but she felt good enough to make the trip to Florida for the season-ending event.

“We had some really cold days,” Kaufman said. “We had some snow. I was done with it. I was coming down here.”

How does she feel?

“I feel great,” she said. “I’m a little bit shaky, which isn’t great out there, but it’s great to be here doing something. I was going a little bit stir crazy [at home], just kind of fighting through it.”

Kaufman made eight birdies in her bogey-free round.

New-look Wie eyes CME Group Tour Championship title

By Randall MellNovember 19, 2017, 1:32 am

NAPLES, Fla. – Michelle Wie is sporting a new look that even has fellow players doing double takes.

Bored during her six-week recovery from an emergency appendectomy late this summer, Wie decided to cut and die her hair.

She went for golden locks, and a shorter style.

“I kind of went crazy after being in bed that long,” Wie said. “I just told my mom to grab the kitchen scissors and just cut all my hair off.”

Wie will get to sport her new look on a big stage Sunday after playing herself into a four-way tie for the lead at the CME Group Tour Championship. With a 6-under-par 66, she is in contention to win her fifth LPGA title, her first since winning the U.S. Women’s Open three years ago.

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Wie, 28, fought her way back this year after two of the most disappointing years of her career. Her rebound, however, was derailed in late August, when she withdrew from the final round of the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open to undergo an emergency appendectomy. She was out for six weeks.

Before the surgery, Wie enjoyed getting back into contention regularly, with six finishes of T-4 or better this season. She returned to the tour on the Asian swing in October.

Fellow tour pros were surprised when she came back with the new look.

“Definitely, walk by people and they didn’t recognize me,” Wie said.

Wie is looking to continue to build on her resurgence.

“I gained a lot of confidence this year,” she said. “I had a really tough year last year, the last couple years. Just really feeling like my old self. Really feeling comfortable out there and having fun, and that's when I play my best.”

You Oughta Know: LPGA's Sunday scenarios

By Randall MellNovember 19, 2017, 1:17 am

NAPLES, Fla. – The CME Group Tour Championship is loaded with pressure-packed subplots Sunday at Tiburon Golf Club.

Here’s what You Oughta Know about the prizes at stake:

Race to the CME Globe

Lexi Thompson and Sung Hyun Park are 1-2 in CME Globe points. They are best positioned Sunday to take home the $1 million jackpot in the season-long competition.

Thompson and Park are tied for fifth in the tournament, one shot off the lead. If either of them wins, she will take home the jackpot.

The way it’s unfolding Thompson is a good bet to take home the jackpot by merely finishing ahead of Park, unless they both stumble badly on Sunday.

Ariya Jutanugarn is also one shot off the lead. She must win to take home the jackpot, but she would also need Thompson to finish ninth or worse and Park to finish eighth or worse and nobody else among the top 12 in points to make a bold Sunday charge.

Stacy Lewis is one shot off the lead with a longshot chance at the jackpot. She must win the tournament while Thompson finishes 26th or worse, Park finishes 12th or worse and nobody else among the top 12 in points makes a bold Sunday charge.

So Yeon Ryu and Shanshan Feng are among others who still have a shot at the $1 million prize, but they have fallen back in the pack and need bold Sunday charges to take home the jackpot.

Rolex Player of the Year

The Rolex Player of the Year Award remains a four-player race.

Ryu (162), Feng (159), Park (157) and Thompson (147) all have a chance to win the award.

Park and Thompson are best positioned to make Sunday moves to overtake Ryu.

Park needs to finish sixth or better to win the award outright; Thompson needs to win the tournament to win the award.

It’s simple math.

The top 10 in the tournament will be awarded points.

1st - 30 points

2nd – 12 points

3rd – 9 points

4th – 7 points

5th – 6 points

6th – 5 points

7rd – 4 points

8th – 3 points

9th – 2 points

10th – 1 point

Vare Trophy

Thompson took a 69.147 scoring average to Naples. Park needs to finish nine shots ahead of Thompson to have a shot at the trophy.

Money-winning title

Park leads the tour in money winnings with $2,262,472. Ryu is the only player who can pass her Sunday, and Ryu must win the tournament to do so. Ryu is tied for 32nd, five shots off the lead. If Ryu wins the tournament, she also needs Park to finish worse than solo second.

Rolex world No. 1 ranking

World No. 1 Feng, No. 2 Park and No. 3 Ryu are separated by just three hundredths of a point.

Because they are so close, the scenarios for overtaking Feng are head spinning.

At No. 4, Thompson is a full average ranking point behind Feng, but she could become the sixth different player this season to move to No. 1. Thompson, however, has to win Sunday to have a chance to do so, and then it will depend on what Feng, Park and Ryu do. Again, the scenarios are complex.

Cook leads RSM Classic by three at Sea Island

By Associated PressNovember 19, 2017, 12:28 am

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. - PGA Tour rookie Austin Cook shot a 4-under 66 on Saturday to increase his lead to three strokes in the RSM Classic.

Cook, a shot ahead after a second-round 62, had five birdies and a bogey - his first of the week - to reach 18-under 194 with a round left at Sea Island Golf Club's Seaside Course.

''Putting is key right now,'' Cook said. ''Been able to make a lot of clutch putts for the pars to save no bogeys. Hitting the ball pretty much where we're looking and giving ourselves good opportunities on every hole.''

Former University of Georgia player Chris Kirk was second after a 64.

''I'm really comfortable here,'' Kirk said. ''I love Sea Island. I lived here for 6 1/2 years, so I played the golf course a lot, SEC Championships and come down here for the RSM Classic. My family and I, we come down here a few other times a year as well.''

Brian Gay was another stroke back at 14 under after a 69.

''I love the course,'' Gay said. ''We keep getting different wind directions so it's keeping us on our toes. Supposed to be another completely different wind direction tomorrow, so we're getting a new course every day.''

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J.J. Spaun had a 62 to get to 13 under.

''I just kind of played stress-free golf out there and kept the golf ball in front of me,'' Spaun said. ''I had a lot of looks and scrambled pretty well, even though it was only a handful of times, but pretty overall pleased with how I played today.''

Cook has made the weekend cuts in all four of his starts this season. The 26-year-old former Arkansas player earned his PGA Tour card through the Tour.

''I think with an extra year on the Web this past year, I really grew mentally and with my game, just kind of more confidence,'' Cook said. ''I was able to put myself in contention on the more this year than I have in the past. I think I've just, you know, learned from experiences on the Web to help me grow out here.''

He planned to keep it simple Saturday night.

''I've got my parents here and my in-laws are both here as well as my wife,'' Cook said. ''Go home and just have a good home-cooked meal and just kind of enjoy the time and embrace the moment.''

Kirk won the last of his four PGA Tour titles in 2015 at Colonial.

''It's nice to be back in contention again,'' Kirk said. ''It's been a little while for me. But I felt great out there today, I felt really comfortable, and so hopefully it will be the same way tomorrow and I'll keep my foot on the pedal and stay aggressive, try to make some birdies.''