ST. LOUIS – Jordan Spieth can continue his march on history this week at the PGA Championship ... and all anyone wants to talk about is the continued brilliance of Justin Thomas.
Imagine that scenario three years ago.
Members of the high school class of 2011 and friendly rivals, Spieth and Thomas, both 25, are inextricably linked – then, now and probably forever. With a two-year head start, Spieth has almost always enjoyed the upper hand, but now Thomas is slowly but surely turning the tables.
After his resounding victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Thomas now owns nine PGA Tour titles to Spieth’s 11. Thomas has absolutely been the better player recently – he has five victories alone in the past 12 months, while Spieth is winless over that same span. You’d have to go all the way back to Spieth’s days as a Texas tyke to find a full calendar year in which he went without a win.
“Getting into the winner’s circle is obviously something I would like to do,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t feel any added pressure from it. And I won’t. If it happens or doesn’t happen through the rest of this calendar year, I’m working in the right direction. I’m doing the right things. And if you get yourself in position enough, the bounces will go your way.”
But a debate that would have seemed unthinkable in the halcyon days of 2015 now at least has some traction: When they hang up their spikes, who will have the better career, Spieth or Thomas? There’s 20 more years to figure it out, but in the moment public sentiment seems to be drifting toward Thomas. He’s longer off the tee. He hits his irons higher. He’s a more consistent putter. And like Spieth, he’s learned how to play bigger events, after realizing that he didn’t have to be perfect to win.
History suggests that Spieth will play sublime golf again, probably very soon, and perhaps even this week at Bellerive. He has an opportunity to become just the sixth player to capture the career Grand Slam, but given his recent form – coupled with the emergence of Thomas, the defending PGA champion and No. 2-ranked player in the world – it doesn’t seem the most likely outcome on Sunday night.
“It seemed like Jordan pushed Justin to get going, and now Justin’s pushing Jordan to get going again,” Davis Love III said. “They’re going to go back and forth for quite a while, and probably win a lot of them, and I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them get the slam.”
This is Spieth’s second chance to join golf’s most exclusive club. Last year, he came in riding high off his adventurous Open victory and felt anxious about the week.
“If I worked up the leaderboard,” he said, “I knew it would create a lot of noise.”
Instead, it was eerily silent. He shot over par each of the first two rounds at Quail Hollow and finished in a tie for 28th, then conceded afterward that the PGA will be the toughest major for him to win, because the setups tend to favor the long hitters.
That’ll certainly be the case here at Bellerive, an already soft parkland-style course that was underwater Tuesday after heavy rain soaked the area. Long and straight works everywhere, but particularly at a 7,300-yard par 70 in which many of the par 4s are between 450 and 500 yards. Spieth will need to be at his best to hang, and finding that sweet spot has been an issue this season.
Spieth has regressed in almost all of the major statistical categories. He’s tied a career high for missed cuts (five), went a career-worst six consecutive events without a top-10 and generally hasn’t enjoyed the same week-to-week success, only giving himself a chance to win on a few occasions. It’s a testament to his grit and game-planning that two of those were majors. He almost stole the Masters, after a closing 64, and then was tied through 54 holes at The Open. That was the first time all season that he was within three shots of the lead heading into Sunday, but the final round was an almighty struggle, posting a birdieless 76 when an even-par round was all he needed to retain the claret jug.
“I try and focus on four tournaments a year,” he said. “I have a huge emphasis on them, and two of them I’ve had a chance to win on Sunday this year. So if I’m looking at it from that standpoint, it’s kind of mission accomplished with one to go.”
Indeed, in defeat, Spieth has remained as optimistic as ever. He chalked up his near-miss at Carnoustie to “two bad swings” that cost him a couple of shots. He said his putting is “starting to come back.” He pointed to Jack Nicklaus’ 19 career runners-up in majors, to how sometimes it’ll go his way and other times it won’t.
“This has been a building year for me,” he said.
But he’s also keenly aware of how his results stack up against his competition.
“I feel somewhat under the radar this year,” he said. “I’ve kind of felt that way a lot this year. I don’t mind it.”
That’s the position that Thomas once occupied, and then he used that competitive jealousy to fuel his rise to Player of the Year.
Spieth won’t ever truly be under the radar, of course – not as a three-time major winner, not with so much history at stake – but there is another dynamic at play here.
It’s finally Thomas’ time to hog more of the spotlight.