The Bear's Club preps young guns for Tour stardom

Justin Thomas (L) and Patrick Rodgers (R) in the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship. (Getty)

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Some would consider this classic name-dropping.

“It’s been big for me. This being my rookie year I didn’t really play with many big [named] guys [before],” Justin Thomas said recently. “Down at The Bear’s Club, I’ve played with Camilo; I’ve played with Luke and going out and playing with MJ.”

Morgan Hoffmann added, “Keegan’s [Bradley] around, but he plays with Michael most of the time. There are so many guys.”

Of course, “MJ” would be Jordan, Michael not Spieth, along with Villegas and Donald and whatever other “A” list professional or celebrity who lops up on the first tee at The Bear’s Club.

But for the likes of Thomas, Hoffmann and Patrick Rodgers it’s less about the name than it is the game when it comes to their adopted Tour home.

Consider it on-the-job training.

For the up-and-coming threesome – who set out today at the AT&T Byron Nelson in search of a spot in the elite 20-something club that currently includes Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy – South Florida’s Bear’s Club is like a never-ending PGA Tour combine.

As stressful as Tour life can be for a newcomer – Hoffmann is playing his third year in the big leagues, while Thomas is a rookie, and Rodgers is closing in on Tour status – it’s nothing compared to the nerves one will face on the first tee at The Bear’s Club.

“At The Players, playing with Graeme [McDowell] and Sergio [Garcia] I wasn’t too nervous,” said Thomas, who is currently 39th on the FedEx Cup point list with five top-10 finishes. “Last year, it would have been, ‘Wow, I’m playing with Sergio today. This is going to be big.’ That for me has been the biggest thing.”

The ready-made games also add for a rare level of familiarity on Tour at times when things normally feel as foreign as the metric system, like earlier this month when Rodgers found himself in contention at the Wells Fargo Championship.

He set out on Sunday in the penultimate group paired with Thomas and despite a tough finish at Quail Hollow – he played his last two holes in 3 over to finish tied for second – the week moved him closer to his goal of playing the Tour.

“It was like just hanging out playing at The Bear's Club,” Rodgers said. “I was telling my caddie walking off the first tee it almost didn't feel like a tournament, playing with Justin in a twosome. We had a lot of fun. We're both really lucky. This means a lot to us.”

But as beneficial as it is to punch a clock next to the likes of Donald, Bradley and McIlroy, who all call the Bear’s Club home, it’s the internal competition that gives the would-be world beaters an edge.

The three have regular games back home, something simple like a Nassau or just a team match, and normally it doesn’t even involve The Bear’s Club’s championship layout. The trio often eschews the 7,164-yard layout for the facility’s par-3 course.

At just 1,133 yards, with the longest hole little more than a 7-iron for most Tour players, the par-3 course fulfills two needs for the likes of Hoffmann and Thomas – a place to hone their short games and perfect their trash talking.

“Justin and I go to the par-3 course pretty much every time we’re home and try to kill each other,” Hoffmann said. “We’ve really been pushing each other and we’ve really gotten a lot better because of it.

“My wedges when I first turned pro were terrible, but they’ve gotten a lot better.”

Along with Hoffmann’s wedge game, he said his trash talking has also improved thanks to Thomas.

“Every hole, it’s great. There are really not many compliments. Just putting each other down to pump the other guy up,” Hoffmann said. “He’s so skinny and small, he has to have something to back it up.”

Thomas had a slightly different take on the games as well as an interesting glimpse into what those rounds must be like.

“On the par-3 course there’s really not much competition [with Hoffmann]. I beat him every time,” smiled Thomas with only a hint of good-natured ribbing.

For Thomas, who at 5-foot-10, 145 pounds possesses an uncanny ability to bomb it with the best on Tour, he comes by his ability to talk trash naturally and it’s allowed him to fit in at The Bear’s Club like a 20-year Tour veteran.

“I take pride in being able to talk more crap than anyone else,” Thomas said. “I sometimes get on guy’s nerves. I definitely irritated some guys on the team at Alabama. I just think it’s a part of it. You’ve got to go out and have some fun. That’s why I go out and play with MJ and those guys. We talk a lot of trash and it gets me more prepared.”

MJ, Rory, Keegan.

For the likes of Thomas, Hoffmann and Rodgers it’s not so much about dropping names as much as it is trying to add there’s to the list.