PINEHURST, N.C. – A few hours after qualifying for his first U.S. Open, Justin Thomas received a text message from the most talked-about man at this week’s championship.
“I’ve got Rickie,” Phil Mickelson texted him last Monday. “Get a partner and we’ll play.”
Thomas, in his first full season as a pro, had swapped texts with Mickelson in the past, receiving words of encouragement from the five-time major winner after strong performances at the U.S. Amateur and Walker Cup. The 21-year-old had hoped to score a practice round with Mickelson the previous week at the Memorial, but their schedules conflicted. As Lefty told him in Ohio, “If you qualify for the Open, we’ll get a game.” Thomas then shared medalist honors at the Columbus sectional.
Their practice-round match scheduled, now all Thomas needed was a partner. That proved an easy decision: Jordan Spieth. The two had gone head-to-head for a year and a half in college, with Thomas at Alabama and Spieth at Texas. Thomas may have outdueled Spieth for National Player of the Year honors, but it was Spieth who prevailed in their anchor match at the 2012 NCAA Championship.
Their combined age (41) was less than Phil’s (44 next Monday) – and at 25, Fowler served as the babysitter – but Mickelson, of course, has a long history of taking younger guys under his wing, playing practice rounds with them, showing them the ropes. For him, the benefits are twofold.
“It allows me to see what’s coming up,” he said, “and it pushes me to work harder.”
“That says a lot about him,” Thomas said. “He’s all-business on the course, but to reach out and get to know the young guys, to want to see the game grow, that’s really cool. He didn’t have to play with us on Tuesday of U.S. Open week, but it was awesome that he did.”
As for the match details, the team of Spieth-Thomas moved 3 up after six holes before Mickelson trimmed the deficit with birdies on 12 and 13. Thomas missed a 6-foot par putt on 16 to return the match to all square, but a Spieth birdie on 17 led to a 1-up victory.
“It was very subtly intense,” Thomas said. “We definitely know he’s going to want a rematch. It was probably the first of many.”