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As good as it gets: Thomas sizzles with 63

ERIN, Wis. – Caddie Jimmy Johnson provided a big clue about Justin Thomas three years ago during the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

“He can hit shots that other guys can’t,” Johnson said with an admiring shake of his head. “Like Tiger used to.”

Johnson, a veteran caddie who gave up Steve Stricker’s bag to work for Thomas (at Stricker’s insistence, by the way), does not lie. Thomas, 24, made history Saturday at Erin Hills. He shot 63, the 31st time that’s been done in a major championship, and trails Brian Harman (67, for 12-under 204), the 54-hole leader, by one stroke. Thomas’ 9-under 63 finally toppled Johnny Miller’s 8-under 63 at Oakmont in 1973 as the Open’s lowest score to par. Miller worked the Open for NBC for years as a commentator, but now the Open airs on Fox Sports.

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© USGA
Justin Thomas shoots 9-under 63 at Erin Hills, joining rarified Open air and vaulting into today’s final pairing.

© USGA
Justin Thomas shoots 9-under 63 at Erin Hills, joining rarified Open air and vaulting into today’s final pairing.

“I wish he was calling it, just to hear what he would have said,” Thomas said with a laugh.

Scores: http://www.usopen.com/scoring.html

Tee times: http://www.usopen.com/tee-times.html#!round-4

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Miller likely would have marveled at four shots that you had to see to believe. Four shots that, as Johnson said, other guys can’t hit.

At the fifth, Thomas faced a 20-foot birdie putt from the fringe that sloped so severely, he aimed away from the hole, putted it several feet through the fringe, then watched it race down the hill and dive into the cup.

At the 12th, a twisty roller-coaster ride of a par 4, Thomas slashed a shot out of deep fescue from a hillside in the left rough. The ball bounced onto the green, caught a slope and curved toward the pin, stopping 8 feet away. That turned into another of nine birdies. Incredible.

Since the USGA moved the tee up at the downhill par-4 15th, Thomas launched a high-cut 3-wood shot and urged it on: “Be as good as you look!” It was, stopping 6 feet behind the cup. He missed the eagle putt but got his birdie.

The 18th was a par 5 playing 667 yards. Thomas hit 3-wood off the tee, got an extra 25 yards of roll when it caromed hard off a downslope and kicked toward the fairway. He needed every one of those yards on his next 3-wood shot, which bounced perfectly just short of the green and rolled up to within 6 feet. He made that putt for eagle and 63.

You won’t see a shot Sunday better than any of those four. Asked to single out one swing that he’ll remember, Thomas answered quickly, “The 3-wood on 18. That was pretty sweet.”

The arrival of Thomas is not unexpected. He’s a native of Louisville, Ky., and had a stellar college career at Alabama, where he won the 2012 Haskins Award as a freshman and helped the Crimson Tide to the 2013 NCAA team title. He was a can’t-miss guy and this season, he’s not missing. He owns three victories, including back-to-back wins in Hawaii, and looks poised to challenge Dustin Johnson and Jason Day and Rory McIlroy at the top of golf’s elite summit.

The U.S. Open is a big step for Thomas, or could be. “The U.S. Open is supposed to be very uncomfortable,” he said. “The USGA is known for making you hate yourself and hate golf and really struggle out there. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s fun. This one is different because it’s soft.”

The receptive greens led to his 63. Whether his epic score is remembered like Miller’s or joins the list of forgotten 63s shot in majors by the likes of Hiroshi Iwata and Robert Streb will be based on one thing: winning the Open.

Thomas has a shot. As Johnson said and as Thomas showed Saturday, he’s got a lot of shots.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated andGolf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle