TOUR Championship – Final Round

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TOUR Championship - Final Round

There were two promising twentysomethings standing side by side on the 18th green at the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Justin Thomas, 24, who’d finished second in the tournament, raised the FedEx Cup trophy following his season of excellence.

Xander Schauffele, one year younger, hoisted the winner’s silver Calamity Jane putter a nod to East Lake’s Bobby Jones after winning his second PGA Tour title in three months. (He also won the Greenbrier in July.)

Last week, when player voting commenced and the time arrived to announce the PGA Tour’s top postseason honors, those same two players shared the stage again. Thomas captured the Jack Nicklaus Award as the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year; Schauffele was honored as the circuit’s top rookie.

A year ago, Thomas started his season with one career PGA Tour victory. He then won five times, landed his first major, captured the season-long FedEx Cup race and represented the U.S. for the first time as a pro on one of its national teams, competing in the Presidents Cup.

The highlight for Thomas arrived in August, when he won the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte. It was extra meaningful to him not only because it was his first major title, but because of his golf bloodlines. He is the son (and grandson) of PGA of America professionals. Justin’s dad, Mike, has been his only teacher.

He took the huge Wanamaker Trophy to neighbor Rickie Fowler’s house in Jupiter, Fla., ahead of Hurricane Irma and had Fowler secure it in his in-ground safe. But now that Thomas has retrieved it, it serves as a reminder of his magical season. He can’t help but smile when he sees it.

I have like a little bookcase, Thomas said, and it’s a little bigger than the other trophies I have. But it’s (on) kind of a nice little ledge above the fireplace in my living room that it just fits perfect, right when you walk in the front door. I think I’m going to leave it there.

Thomas was selected as POY over candidates Dustin Johnson, who won the award in 2016, Hideki Matsuyama and Jordan Spieth, the 2015 winner. All three won three or more events in 2016-17.

Thomas defended at the CIMB in Malaysia last autumn, won back-to-back in Hawaii in January (SBS and Sony, shooting 59 at the latter), established a U.S. Open record in relation to par by shooting 9-under 63 at Wisconsin’s Erin Hills in June, and won the PGA in August. He also won the second FedEx Cup Playoffs event (Dell Technologies at TPC Boston) and secured the FedEx Cup with a runner-up finish at the Tour Championship, where he finished one shot behind Schauffele.

Thomas was fulfilling some media obligations Wednesday when Nicklaus popped in to surprise him, congratulating him for being recognized as the Tour’s top player this season.

It’s a huge honor, said Thomas, who finished 3-1-1 in a winning U.S. effort in his first Presidents Cup. Any time you can win an award with someone like Jack Nicklaus’ name on the award, it definitely means a lot. It’s something that I’ll cherish for a while, for sure.

Schauffele, like Thomas, is a member of the talented high school Class of 2011. He was plodding along at No. 352 in the world in early June, having missed six cuts in 13 starts, when he won a five-players-for-two-spots playoff at U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying in Tennessee. Soon he was off and running.

Schauffele tied for fifth at the U.S. Open, won at Greenbrier a few weeks later and played his last six holes in 6 under at the BMW Championship just to get to the Tour Championship. Once there, he ended up winning the season finale.

Schauffele is the fourth Class of 2011 member to earn ROY honors, following Spieth (2013), Daniel Berger (2015) and Emiliano Grillo (2016).

(Note: This story appears in the Oct. 9, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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