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Spieth vs. Thomas: Tour’s rivalry for future

Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.

Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth.

Whichever way the names enter your thoughts or come out of your mouth, for a long time, they were interchangeable. They’ve been chasing each other for most of their golf lives.

Back in junior golf – just a little more than six years ago, by the way – Spieth and Thomas were scrapping back and forth while observers wondered who was the better player.

Spieth started to pull away in college. When Spieth was a freshman at Texas, his Longhorns won the 2012 NCAA Championship over Thomas and Alabama at Riviera Country Club. In the match-play final, Spieth defeated Thomas, a fact that Spieth never lets Thomas forget.

Spieth hit the PGA Tour like a bulldozer, winning the John Deere Classic in 2013, two weeks before his 20th birthday. He didn’t win in 2014 but tied for second at the Masters, behind Bubba Watson.

But in 2015, Spieth won five times, including the Masters and the U.S. Open. And he was one shot out of the playoff at the British Open, won by Zach Johnson. Spieth won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup. He owns 11 PGA Tour victories, including three majors, at age 24. He is one of the game’s brightest stars, with seemingly no limitations. He has amassed nearly $36 million in career earnings. (Isn’t that amazing?)

While Spieth was cutting a wide swath through professional golf, Thomas had a few dues to pay. After turning pro in 2013, he spent 2014 on the Web.com Tour. He graduated to the big Tour by finishing fifth on the money list, including a victory.

Thomas played well enough in 2015 to finish 36th on the FedEx Cup points list. He didn’t win until the 2015 CIMB Classic in Malaysia, but he racked up seven more PGA Tour victories in the past 16 months. In fact, he has won seven times in his past 30 Tour starts, a Tiger Woods-like streak.

Now, Spieth is chasing Thomas, who is No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Spieth is No. 4. They swapped places when Thomas won the recent Honda Classic.

Lately, Spieth has morphed into something more human. He has had trouble finding the golf course with his driver. In recent weeks, the best putter in the game has become merely ordinary, at best.

Statistically, they appear to be mostly in a dead heat. Spieth hits 13.1 greens per round to 12.6 for Thomas. Spieth hits 8.5 fairways per round, while Thomas hits 8.13. Thomas makes 4.5 birdies per round to 4.11 for Spieth. However, Thomas’ 69.254 scoring average is better than Spieth’s 69.971, which is 2.87 strokes better per tournament.

The most glaring statistic is that Thomas’ strokes gained putting is .302, ranked only 64th. But Spieth is a lowly minus-.315, which ranks 164th. That means that Thomas gains about 2.4 more strokes on the field per tournament than Spieth does.

Numbers-wise, they seem to be remarkably close, but perception indicates that they are pretty far apart. And you probably can blame us, the observers, at least partially. Spieth hasn’t been in contention this year, but he hasn’t played badly, either. He has two top-10 finishes in five events. Other than a missed cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, his worst finish in five 2018 starts has been a tie for 20th at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

However, Thomas has revved his engines, winning twice in his past seven events and is perhaps golf’s hottest property. He will be one of the favorites in every event that he enters, including this week’s WGC Mexico Championship, and challenge Dustin Johnson for No. 1 player in the world, perhaps taking the top spot by year end.

But there is no reason to think that Spieth couldn’t do the same. He has been No. 1 before. Surely, he will find a way to turn around his putting. You can’t be the best putter in the world and suddenly lose it. He’s mentally tough enough to reverse his fortunes.

Spieth and Thomas. Thomas and Spieth. For as long as their careers exist, you likely won’t find an ounce of difference between them.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf