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.

PGA Championship: Scores | Live blog: Day 4 | Full coverage

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.

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Daly WDs from U.S. Sr. Open, blames USGA for denying cart request

By Ryan LavnerJune 25, 2018, 5:13 pm

John Daly has withdrawn from this week’s U.S. Senior Open because of a knee injury.

In a tweet, Daly said that he has “deteriorating osteoarthritis” in his right knee but that the USGA denied his request for a cart this week at The Broadmoor in Colorado.

“Don’t know what’s ahead for me,” he tweeted.

Daly said that he is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires players or caddies to submit medical documentation proving “substantial impairment” and that the use of a golf cart is necessary. The USGA can deny the use of a cart if providing it to a player “fundamentally alter(s) the fairness of the competition.”

A USGA spokesperson confirmed Monday that Daly requested the use of a cart but declined to comment on Daly’s condition or the specific reasons why his request was denied, “as it is considered private, personal information.”

“Consistent with the ADA, we review each request for cart usage on a case-by-case basis,” the USGA said in a statement. “We deeply respect the privacy of all of our players.”

Daly has three top-10s in eight starts this season, including a tie for seventh last week in Wisconsin. Prior to that, he withdrew from each of his previous three events. He was replaced in the field by David McKenzie.  

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Kang grouped with world No. 1, USWO champ at KPMG

By Randall MellJune 25, 2018, 3:36 pm

Defending champion Danielle Kang will be grouped with Rolex World No. 1 Inbee Park and reigning U.S. Women’s Open champ Ariya Jutanugarn in the first two rounds of this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes Golf Club outside Chicago.

Here’s a look at some of the notable groupings (all times ET):

Kang, Park and A. Jutanugarn: 9:10 a.m., Thursday; 2:20 p.m., Friday.

Kang broke through to win her first LPGA title at Olympia Fields last year and is looking to join Se Ri Pak and In Gee Chun as the only players to claim major championships as their first two LPGA titles. Park is aiming to win this major for the fourth time. She is the last player to win it back to back. (Actually, she won it three times in a row, 2013-15). Jutanugarn is looking to win back-to-back majors after claiming the U.S. Women’s Open a month ago.

Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko and So Yeon Ryu: 2:10 p.m., Thursday; 9 a.m., Friday.

Thompson is seeking her first victory this year, but she arrives in good form. She tied for third Sunday at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, her third consecutive top-10 finish. Ko won the LPGA Mediheal Championship in April and also is coming off a top-10 finish last weekend, her fourth in her last six starts. Ryu won the Meijer Classic two weeks ago.

Michelle Wie, Charley Hull and Nelly Korda: 2 p.m., Thursday; 8:50 a.m. Friday.

Wie won the HSBC Women’s World Championship in March and has been flirting with another victory ever since. She has six finishes of T-15 or better this season, including a T-10 finish at the U.S. Women’s Open. Hull’s first LPGA title felt like a major at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship in 2016, but she’s looking to claim a real one this week. She finished top 10 in both of the women’s majors played so far this year. She was T-6 at the ANA Inspiration and T-10 at the U.S. Women’s Open. Korda would like to follow Kang’s lead and become another first time LPGA winner at the Women’s PGA. She tied for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open a month ago and followed that up with a T-9 finish at the Meijer Classic two weeks ago.

Here's a look at full tee times:

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Monday Scramble: Again and never again

By Ryan LavnerJune 25, 2018, 3:00 pm

Bubba Watson takes title No. 3, Paul Casey folds, Rory McIlroy's putting struggles continue, Phil Mickelson apologizes, Ho-sung Choi stars and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Bubba Watson still defers to 2015 as the best year of his career. That’s when he won in Los Angeles, Augusta, Shanghai and the Bahamas. During the PGA Tour wraparound season, however, he won only twice, and it wasn’t nearly enough to top Jordan Spieth for Player of the Year honors.

This season might be different.

There are still two majors and the playoffs left, and voters tend to weigh major victories more heavily, but the 39-year-old Watson has to be considered the current favorite for Player of the Year.

He’s the first three-time winner of the campaign, and his three titles have come on a variety of courses and even formats – at Riviera, at the Match Play, at TPC River Highlands. The common denominator is a strong field, and Watson prevailed again Sunday after a closing 63.

The only issue for Watson’s POY candidacy: He’s entering a portion of the schedule (July-September) in which he’s never won. He has only one top-25 at The Open. He hasn’t contended at the PGA since a playoff loss in 2010. He has stated that he isn’t particularly fond of East Lake, site of the all-important FedExCup finale.

But maybe this is the summer it all changes and Watson becomes the Tour’s top player for the first time in his career.

1. Just 71 yards. Tight lie. Downwind. Tucked pin. Desperately needing birdie.

Of the many spectacular shots that his boss has hit in his career, caddie Ted Scott put his hand on Watson’s shoulder and told him this was the best yet:

2. Watson’s final-round 63 was the lowest closing score by a winner on Tour this season. His round included six birdies and no bogeys over his final 10 holes, as he chased down a sputtering Paul Casey and eventually passed him, erasing a six-shot deficit. 

3. It wasn’t a surprise, of course.

Watson has three wins, six top-10s and eight top-25s at TPC River Highlands. His scoring average there: 67.48. His career earnings are north of $4.7 million.

“I feel like this is my home course,” he said. “I can play golf around here.”

4. Even with a drought-busting victory earlier this year at Innisbrook, Casey on Sunday couldn’t shake his reputation as a talented ball-striker who has trouble closing.

Staked to a five-shot lead after the opening hole, Casey shot 2 over in the final round – including crushing bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 – to finish three shots back of Watson. His was the worst score of anyone inside the top 35.

Casey has 53 top-10s on Tour but only two wins. Odd.

5. Without question, Casey wasn’t as sharp as his third-round 62, but it didn’t help to be in the final group behind J.B. Holmes.

Indeed, one of the Tour’s most notorious slowpokes was at it again at TPC River Highlands.

After icing Alex Noren with a 3-minute standoff with his ball at Torrey Pines, Holmes dropped at least a hole behind on the closing stretch Sunday.

It clearly affected both quick players in the final group, Casey and Russell Henley. Yes, it’s a shame that Holmes can continue to disrupt the competition without repercussions, but Casey needed to be prepared for that situation.

6. Another stellar week of ball-striking was for naught last week for Rory McIlroy. He tied for 12th, but his statistics really told the story at TPC River Highlands:

Strokes gained: tee to green: First

Strokes gained: putting: Last

Since that highly publicized lesson with Brad Faxon resulted in an emphatic victory at Bay Hill, McIlroy has only had negative strokes-gained weeks on the greens.

That’s not a knock on Faxon’s methods. It’s more a reflection that even the poorest putters on Tour can find a spark for a week.

7. Well, it’s official: Jordan Spieth is mired in the worst slump of his young career.

Never before has the 24-year-old gone six consecutive starts without a top-10 finish. But that’s exactly what Spieth has done now, dating to the Masters.

The Travelers may have been his biggest head-scratcher yet. He shared the first-round lead after a 63, then played 3 over the rest of the week and finished outside the top 40.

It wasn’t his suddenly suspect putting that let him down, either. He finished the week ranked 21st in strokes gained: putting; once again, it was his long game (he was 60th in strokes gained: tee to green).

Spieth didn’t sound concerned afterward. He said that his putting is the “best it’s been for a couple of years” – keep in mind he was ranked ninth and second, respectively, in 2015-16 – and now it’s just a matter of sorting out his alignment with his long game.

He didn’t rule out adding another start before his title defense at The Open – the most likely landing spot is the Deere, where he won in 2013 and ’15 – but he also took three weeks off before capturing the claret jug last year at Royal Lytham.

8. U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka said he never thought about pulling out of the Travelers because of fatigue, and he was rewarded with a Sunday 65 to post a top-20 finish. He also wasn’t surprised by the number of “stupid mistakes and mental errors” he made, a product of being wiped out after a long, trying week at Shinnecock.

Last year, remember, Koepka didn’t play another event after his win at Erin Hills and followed it up with a tie for sixth at The Open. This time, at least, he has a few extra reps before heading to Carnoustie.

“I’m shutting it down for a while,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need to play. I feel like my game is in a good spot.”

9. Four days too late, Phil Mickelson finally offered an apology for his actions during the third round of the U.S. Open – and it’s precisely what many thought Mickelson would say after he finished his week at Shinnecock Hills.

Since he was still fired up after his Saturday round, fine, let him blow off steam, continue to be defiant and provide an excuse (albeit a confusing one). But the next day, after some time to reflect? Fall on your sword and show some contrition. That’s on the first page of the PR handbook.

And yet Mickelson didn’t talk at all to reporters after the final round, and he only issued a statement three days later, after “a few days to calm down.”

“My anger and frustration got the best of me last weekend,” he said. “I’m embarrassed and disappointed by my actions. It was clearly not my finest moment and I’m sorry.”

That’s a step in the right direction, but he’s sorry for what exactly? Sorry that he deliberately broke the spirit of a rule? Sorry that he made a farce out of the competition? Sorry that he didn’t withdraw? Sorry that he told fans and fellow players to “toughen up” if they were offended? Sorry that he offered a lame excuse about wanting to break that rule for years? Sorry that he didn’t just admit that his window to win the U.S. Open is almost closed?

So many questions remain.

10. One question that seemingly WAS answered Monday: Mickelson won’t partner with Tiger Woods again at the Ryder Cup.

It wasn’t that absurd of a consideration, the two aging warriors and rivals whose relationship has thawed in recent years. It’s possible it’s their final Ryder Cup together, and perhaps this time, 14 years later, they’d bring out the best (and not the worst) of each other.

But U.S. captain Jim Furyk laughed off the idea Monday, saying that it’s not a “good idea” and that if the two stars heard it on TV they “just fell off the couch laughing.”

OK, then.

11. If you’re reading this column over lunch, well, sorry, but Greg Norman recently had a photo shoot for ESPN the Magazine’s “Body Issue,” and the results were nothing short of horrifying.

The Shark is still crazy-fit at 63, but he's also a similar age to my parents and at some point this just becomes weird.

Growing up, my favorite player to watch was Tiger Woods.

Over the past few years, it’s been a joy to watch Rory McIlroy up close.

But there’s no one, anywhere, at any time, who is more entertaining to watch than Ho-sung Choi. I’d never heard of him before last week, and perhaps we’ll never hear of him again, but what a thrill it was for him to come into our lives. His WILD body English after shots, his twisting and contorting and pirouetting, was beautiful and mesmerizing.

Playing in the Korea Open, Choi nearly stole one of the two available spots into The Open. Perhaps the powers-that-be can offer him a special exemption into Carnoustie – you know, for the good of the game and all that.

This week's award winners ... 

Another Rules Investigation: Bryson DeChambeau. After photos surfaced of DeChambeau using a compass during the Travelers, Tour officials informed him that they’re looking into whether it’s an allowable device during competition. He uses the compass to check the “true pin locations,” since he says sometimes the Tour-issued sheets are slightly off. Credit him for his response afterward: “It’s just funny that people take notice when I start putting and playing well.” He's now up to eighth in the Ryder Cup standings ...

Best This Decade: Stewart Cink. Following up a fourth-place showing in Memphis in his previous start, Cink closed with 62 in Hartford to share second. It’s the first time since 2008 that Cink had consecutive top-5s on Tour.

Awkward: Paul Casey/Peter Kostis dynamic. As his student kicked away a five-shot lead in the final round, we would have loved to watch Kostis’ reaction in the CBS booth.

Must Be a FSU Thing: Chase Seiffert. A former teammate of Koepka’s, Seiffert parlayed a Monday qualifying spot into a top-10 at the Travelers, earning a spot in two weeks at The Greenbrier.  

Making It Look (Big) Easy: Jovan Rebula. The rising junior at Auburn won the British Amateur to earn a spot into the first two majors of 2019, provided he remains amateur. Even more interesting: Rebula will join his uncle, Ernie Els, at Carnoustie.  

Time to Go Low: Thorbjorn Olesen. The best score for the first three rounds of the BMW International Open was 67 … and then Olesen hung an 11-under 61 in the final round to finish one shot out of a playoff. Meanwhile ... 

Home Hurt: Martin Kaymer. Trying to score a victory in his home country, Kaymer bogeyed the 71st hole when he thinned a wedge shot over the green. He finished one stroke shy of Matt Wallace.

Can’t Make This Up: Marc Dull. You might remember the name from the two stories we published about him last month – he’s the Florida amateur whose "inebriated" caddie allegedly sucker-punched his opponent during a rain delay at the State Mid-Am. Well, he found himself in another rain delay, this time in a playoff for the State Amateur. His opponent, Gabriel Lench, emerged unscathed during the rain delay and won on the second extra hole.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Daniel Berger. Technically, he earned a paycheck (T-67), but the week was a massive disappointment for a player who A) lost in a playoff at the Travelers last year and had a tie for fifth in his other prior appearance, and B) tied for sixth at the U.S. Open after holding the 54-hole lead. Sigh.  

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Furyk: Not a 'good idea' to team Tiger, Phil at Ryder Cup

By Ryan LavnerJune 25, 2018, 1:12 pm

Those hoping for another Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson partnership at the Ryder Cup might be sorely disappointed.

U.S. captain Jim Furyk all but slammed the door on the reboot Monday on Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive.” Speaking at the CVS Health Charity Classic, Furyk laughed off the idea and said that it wouldn’t be a “good idea” for him to team them again.

“It worked out so well the first time,” he said, chuckling, referring to the 2004 matches, where captain Hal Sutton paired the sport’s two biggest stars and watched them go 0-2 en route to a lopsided team defeat at home.

Colin Montgomerie, who was also on the set and a member of that ’04 European squad, chimed in: “It was a great decision for Europe!”

Woods and Mickelson’s relationship has improved in recent years, since they were part of the task force that morphed into the Ryder Cup committee. They even played a practice round together this year at the Masters. But Furyk seemed to suggest even that wouldn’t be enough to put them together again in Paris.

“I hope they’re both watching, because they just fell off the couch laughing,” Furyk said. “I wouldn’t guess that would be a good idea as a captain, I’m just saying.”

Both Mickelson and Woods are outside the top 8 automatic qualifiers. Mickelson is currently ranked 10th, while Woods is now 39th.

Woods has already been named a vice captain for this year’s matches, though Furyk said that Woods had broached the topic of being a playing vice captain as early as January. Furyk added that he hasn’t discussed what Woods would need to show him over the course of the year to be considered for a captain’s pick.

“He hasn’t played as big of a schedule as everybody else,” Furyk said, “but when he has played, he’s played pretty well. Definitely an eye-opener for everyone.”