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ATLANTA Sunday evening at East Lake Golf Club, Justin Thomas pulled out his well-worn iPhone and opened up his list of goals for 2016-17. There were 13 in all, some rather vague (less short sides), some specific (+ 0.25 or better strokes gained: putting) and a few that were quite ambitious for any 24-year-old.
As in, win a major. (He did.)
You could put green check marks next to nearly all, which tells you what kind of career-altering year it was for Justin Thomas. Sure, there was disappointment in not finishing the deal at the Tour Championship on Sunday a close birdie miss at the par-5 18th and final-round 66 left him one shot short of winner Xander Schauffele but as the congratulatory texts piled in and a little time started to pass, it began to settle in as to just how special a season he had woven together.
When Thomas began the 2016-17 season last autumn in Napa, Calif., he owned one tour victory (2015 CIMB) and was ranked 35th in the world. When the curtain fell on Sunday, he was a six-time Tour winner, a major champion, the No. 4 player in the world, and the owner of the FedEx Cup.
There were so many telling moments to his season, the first of which came in his opening tournament, the Safeway Open, when he bounced back from a rugged first-round 75 to shoot 66 and make the cut. It would be that kind of season. In his third season, Thomas no longer was another young, long-hitting stud filled with potential. In 2016-17, he started to provide some answers. Some big results. He closed the gap on his old pal, Jordan Spieth, who’d ventured out to the Tour one year ahead of him and had been setting the bar so high for the young guns. In short, Thomas’ season was mightily impressive, and will earn him PGA Tour player of the year accolades.
He also realizes how razor-thin the line can be in golf. Even on Sunday, Spieth, who entered the FedEx Cup ahead of Thomas in points, had a chance to win the FedEx, as did Paul Casey, who began the day in the lead. Spieth holed a lob wedge for eagle on No. 10 but ran out of magic on the back nine, and by the time Thomas made birdies at 16 and 17, the year-long race for the cup was in his hands. What was left was to try to win the tournament, and when he fell just short, it made for a strange cocktail. There was disappointment in defeat in trying to attain the Tour Championship trophy a replica of Bobby Jones’ famed old Calamity Jane putter and then he was handed the beautiful FedEx Cup and asked to smile brightly for the cameras.
For a fierce competitor who’d just lost, it was, well, weird.
It’s odd getting something so tremendous, one of my best achievements in my career, without winning a golf tournament, he said, so it feels different, but it’s still great.
Thomas successfully defended his crown at the CIMB in Malaysia last autumn, but really caught attention with his Hawaiian double in January, winning the SBS Tournament of Champions at Kapalua and backing it up with a sizzling 59 and runaway triumph at the Sony Open. Funny, but he never was more nervous than on Sunday at Sony, even though he was armed with a seven-shot lead. No one on Tour had ever surrendered such a huge cushion, and that played on his mind. He responded by shooting 65, and winning by seven.
So that was pretty much going through my head (losing the big lead), Thomas said, and I felt like after that I learned a lot to where I could kind of ride that momentum out for the year.
He surfed in like a champion. He set a record in relation to par at the U.S. Open (9-under 63 at Erin Hills) and got a taste of playing in the last group on Sunday (75). Two months later it paid off at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow, where he won the PGA Championship. He added a playoff victory at TPC Boston and posted a clutch runner-up showing at East Lake, and now that lovely FedEx Cup is his.
Before Saturday’s telecast, addressing the subject of Thomas’ newfound confidence level this season, NBC’s Johnny Miller said, Well, it ebbs and flows, but Thomas you can tell can’t get enough of trying to play great golf. He is really motivated.
What did Spieth see in Thomas this season? Just a tenacity, a confidence that takes experience in order to build and to have, he said. I really saw it at Sony, he was out in front of the field and really just kept himself out there. and then obviously the PGA showing, what he did there, shows that he has that confidence no matter what the stage is, no matter where it is.
Thomas loves to trot around his trophies, and he cannot wait to enjoy some time off soon to take his Wanamaker (PGA) and FedEx Cup trinkets to places such as the University of Alabama, where he can share them with friends and mentors.
Thomas’ runner-up showing at the Tour Championship delivered $945,000, bringing his season’s earnings to just under $10 million ($9,921,560). Add in his $10 million FedEx winner’s bonus, and all in all, it was quite a season. Did we mention he’s only 24?
Funny, though, as great as the cash is, and all the lifetime security it provides, it never has been what moves the needle for Thomas.
It’s fun to have, because yeah, obviously, who doesn’t like it, but I work hard and I put all this preparation in and I’m competitive because I like winning and I like trophies and I like being in the history books, and I like having my name on trophies that not many people’s (names) are on.
It’s not the money. The money is just a nice bonus that comes with it.
And now Thomas’ big exhale will competing on his first U.S. team, taking part in this week’s Presidents Cup at Liberty National. He is one of six Presidents Cup rookies on the U.S. side. Should you need to find him, he’ll be the one with the big smile on his face.
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