Buddy trip: Thomas' pals help celebrate 59

By Rex HoggardJanuary 13, 2017, 12:13 am

HONOLULU – Jordan Spieth walked into the locker room at Waialae Country Club and couldn’t contain himself, breaking the hushed silence with the first person he came across.

“Dude, his best two putts of the day didn’t even go in,” he gushed to Brandt Snedeker.

Spieth could be forgiven his excitement as he was fresh from a front-row seat to history. Justin Thomas had just become the seventh player to shoot 59 on the PGA Tour, a bizarre card that included two eagles, eight birdies and a bogey at the Sony Open.

Any time you etch your name into the record books it’s a special day, but for Thomas, being paired with close friends Spieth and Daniel Berger made the entire day almost surreal, with his final putt, a 15-footer for eagle at the ninth hole, sparking an unbridled celebration within the threesome.

“I celebrated more than he did,” Spieth laughed.

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Spieth recalled that the same threesome played a casual round together at Makena Golf & Beach Club in Maui just days before last week’s SBS Tournament of Champions with drastically different results.

“No idea, I lost a lot of golf balls,” Thomas shrugged when asked his score that day.

There was no danger of that on Thursday at Waialae.

He chipped in for eagle from 34 yards at his first hole (No. 10) and added birdies of 11, 13, 8, 5 and 3 feet at Nos. 13, 14, 16, 17 and 18, respectively, to turn in 29. As well as he hit the ball on Day 1, and he striped it, his putting was sublime with just a single miss from inside 10 feet.

After Thomas opened his second loop with back-to-back birdies, Spieth began whispering to his caddie that something special was afoot, but didn’t dare say anything to Thomas. That would violate one of sports' most important unwritten rules.

“Obviously it's like sitting on a bench on the same team when a guy is throwing a perfect game,” Spieth said. “You want to stay in the same rhythm you've been staying in the whole day. Certainly never bring it up.”

Thomas, however, wasn’t convinced, not after missing putts for birdie at the fifth (10 feet) and seventh holes (29 feet). In fact, after making birdie at No. 4 he played his next four holes in even par, but that only set the stage for his dramatic finish.

“The two best putts I probably hit today on 5 and 7 didn't go in. When those didn't go in, I was kind of saying to myself, you know, maybe this isn't meant to be,” Thomas said. “I was kind of curious if I was going to post a number or if it was just an unbelievable round.”

Thomas’ drive found the bunker at the par-5 ninth hole. “I wanted to punch something,” he said. He appeared destined for a 10-under round on the par-70 layout, but Berger, who was in the same bunker off the tee, showed him the way.

It’s what friends do.

“It was sitting really good to where it felt like I could get a 6-iron or 7-iron on it and just get it short of the green. And then I hear [Berger’s] caddie say 4-iron for them,” Thomas said. “I was like, man, can I hit it on the green? I'm like, I guess I can hit it on the green, I don't know.”

Thomas said he “flushed” a 5-iron that cleared the lip of the bunker, sailed through the warm air and settled 15 feet left of the pin. He made the putt - of course he did, what else would one expect from a player who has won twice and finished in the top 5 in four of his last five starts?

“I kind of thought when he had a look at [eagle on No. 9] that this is the kind of stuff he does,” said Mike Thomas, Justin’s father.

Thomas became the first player from the vaunted high school class of 2011 to post golf’s magic number (although Jim Furyk’s 58 last year at the Travelers Championship has certainly set a new standard), and he is a combined 33 under par in his last five Tour rounds going back to last week’s Tournament of Champions, which he won by three strokes.

But all that doesn’t really calculate in the heat of the moment. As he approached the final green he allowed himself a moment of self-indulgence, trying to imagine how he would react if the putt dropped and his card added up to 59.

This isn’t what players dream about growing up, even players like Thomas who appeared destined for greatness early. You envision holing a putt to win a major or maybe the Ryder Cup, but closing out a 59 isn’t exactly something you contemplate until it’s probably too late to plan.

Even when the left-to-right slider at the last trundled over the lip of the hole, Thomas wasn’t sure what to do until Spieth and Berger ignited the celebration.

“The coolest part for me was how excited they were for me on [No. 9],” Thomas smiled. “To do that with two of your best friends out here and two of your friends that you played with for so long. There's a handful of guys that are just cool to be around, but those are people that I'm going to be playing with and hanging out with for the next 20, 25 years out here.”

Before winning last week’s opener, Thomas admitted that the success of the other members of the ’11 class had flustered him, that he knew he was good enough to be part of that conversation and needed to step up his game.

But now it’s JT setting the standard, first last week in Maui and now with a historic round in Oahu.

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Tiger Woods names his Mount Rushmore of golf

By Golf Channel DigitalSeptember 25, 2018, 6:29 pm
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Mickelson savoring his (likely) last road game

By Rex HoggardSeptember 25, 2018, 3:49 pm

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Phil Mickelson lingered behind as his foursome made its way to the ninth tee during Tuesday’s practice round.

He needed the extra practice, no doubt. He’s one of just six players on the U.S. Ryder Cup team with even a modicum of knowledge about Le Golf National, but the likely reason for Lefty’s leisurely tempo was more personal.

The 2019 Ryder Cup will likely be Mickelson’s last road game as a player.

He’ll be 52 when the U.S. team pegs it up at the 2022 matches in Rome. Although there’s been players who have participated in the biennial event into their golden years – most notably Raymond Floyd who was 51 when he played the ’93 matches – given Mickelson’s play in recent years and the influx of younger players the odds are against him.

“I am aware this is most likely the last one on European soil and my last opportunity to be part of a team that would be victorious here, and that would mean a lot to me personally,” Mickelson said on Tuesday.

It’s understandable that Mickelson would want to linger a little longer in the spotlight of golf’s most intense event.

For the first time in his Ryder Cup career Mickelson needed to be a captain's pick, and he didn’t exactly roar into Paris, finishing 30th out of 30 players at last week’s Tour Championship. He’s also four months removed from his last top-10 finish on the PGA Tour.

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Although he’s reluctant to admit it for Mickelson Le Golf National looks every bit a swansong for the most accomplished U.S. Ryder Cup player of his generation.

In 11 starts at the Ryder Cup, Mickelson has a 26-16-13 record. Perhaps more telling is his 7-3-1 mark since 2012 and he holds the U.S. record for most matches played (45) and is third on the all-time list for most points won (21.5), just two shy of the record held by Billy Casper.

Mickelson’s record will always be defined by what he’s done at the Masters and not done at the U.S. Open, but his status as an anchor for two generations of American teams may never be matched.

For this U.S. team - which is trying to win a road Ryder Cup for the first time since 1993 - Lefty is wearing many hats.

“You know Phil and you know he's always trying to find a way to poke fun, trying to mess with someone,” Furyk said. “He's telling a story. Sometimes you're not sure if they are true or not. Sometimes there's little bits of pieces in each of those, but he provides some humor, provides some levity.”

But there is another side to Mickelson’s appeal in the team room. Although he’s never held the title of vice captain he’s served as a de facto member of the management for some time.

“At the right times, he understands when a team needs a kick in the butt or they need an arm around their shoulder, and he's been good in that atmosphere,” Furyk said. “He's a good speaker and good motivator, and he's been able to take some young players under his wing at times and really get a lot out of them from a partner standpoint.”

In recent years Mickelson has become something of a mentor for young players, first at the ’08 matches with Anthony Kim and again in ’12 with Keegan Bradley.

His role as a team leader in the twilight of his career can’t be overstated and will undoubtedly continue this week if Tuesday’s practice groupings are any indication, with Lefty playing with rookie Bryson DeChambeau.

As DeChambeau was finishing his press conference on Tuesday he was asked about the dynamic in the U.S. team room.

“We're going to try and do our absolute best to get the cup back,” he said.

“Keep the cup,” Lefty shouted from the back of the room, noting that the U.S. won the last Ryder Cup.

It was so Mickelson not to miss a teaching moment or a chance to send a subtle jab delivered with a wry smile.

Mickelson will also be remembered for his role in what has turned out to be an American Ryder Cup resurgence.

“Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best,” Mickelson said in the Scottish gloom at the ’14 matches. “Nobody here was in any decision.”

If Mickelson doesn’t step to the microphone in ’14 at Gleneagles in the wake of another U.S. loss and, honestly, break some china there probably wouldn’t have been a task force. Davis Love III likely wouldn’t have gotten a second turn as captain in ’16 and the U.S. is probably still mired in a victory drought.

Lefty’s Ryder Cup career is far from over. The early line is that he’ll take his turn as captain in 2024 at Bethpage Black – the People’s Champion riding in to become the People’s Captain.

Before he moves on to a new role, however, he’ll savor this week and an opportunity to win his first road game. If he wants to hang back and relish the moment so be it.

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DeChambeau gets foursomes, fourball mixed up

By Will GraySeptember 25, 2018, 3:31 pm

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Bryson DeChambeau is an accomplished player when it comes to match play, having captured the U.S. Amateur and starred on a Walker Cup team. But don’t ask him to explain the semantic difference between the formats in play at this week’s Ryder Cup.

DeChambeau became crossed up Tuesday at Le Golf National when he was asked about the intricacies of foursomes play – better known to many Americans as alternate shot.

“Fourball, foursomes, I always get those mixed up,” DeChambeau said. “It’s just easier for me to say alternate shot.”

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Thankfully for DeChambeau, he still has some time to make a distinction between the two before the matches begin in earnest. And when they do, it’ll be fourballs for the morning sessions both Friday and Saturday, with foursomes in the afternoon – a change from the 2016 matches when DeChambeau was on the grounds at Hazeltine as a spectator.

While the foursomes format brings with it added pressure in an already tense environment, one of the biggest concerns is how well players can adjust to using the ball of their partner on a given hole. DeChambeau is known to leave nothing to chance in his preparation, and he’s already circled that particular factor as he gets set to make his Ryder Cup debut.

“It’s key because we want to be comfortable. Each player needs to be comfortable with the ball that they are playing,” DeChambeau said. “So for compatibility reasons, it’s one of the most important things out there in regards to alternate shot. It is the most important.”

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Tiger helped calm down Reed before epic RC match

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 25, 2018, 3:30 pm

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Tiger Woods apparently played a pivotal role in getting Patrick Reed ready for that epic Ryder Cup singles match against Rory McIlroy – all by cracking a joke on the range.

Then a U.S. vice captain, Woods noticed that Reed was too amped up during the warm-up for the opening singles match.

“He’s watching me warm up, and he’s like, He needs to calm down. He needs to chill out,” Reed recalled. “I was hitting the ball sideways – I was just like, Let’s go.

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“But he pulled me aside. Cracked a little joke to calm me down a little bit” – what the joke was, Reed wouldn’t say, but you can probably guess that it was unprintable – “and I was able to bring that adrenaline level down to manageable, rather than sitting there on high rev.”

It didn’t take long for Reed to explode again.

In one of the most entertaining matches in Ryder Cup history, Reed and McIlroy traded blows for the first eight holes at Hazeltine, combining for eight birdies and an eagle before settling down. Reed eventually won the match, 1 up, after rolling in a birdie putt on the final green.

“It’s something that was hard to make sure you stayed up in that mind frame and also that level that you could play,” Reed said. “You get so amped up, it’s hard. It’s hard to figure out how far you’re going to hit the ball, but at the same time, if you’re so even-keeled in the other direction, it’s hard to get yourself up to get going. You only have 18 holes.

“The good thing is I’ve been able to manage that really well, and luckily I was able to have Tiger there to help me out there on Sunday.”