ST. LOUIS – How could he not be the favorite, right?
When Justin Thomas took a ball-striking tour of Bellerive Country Club on June 4, he owned the place. He capped off a media-day 65 with an eagle on the par 4 No. 18, holing out from 150 yards. It was reminiscent of his third round in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, when he eagled No. 18 for a stunning 63.
Thomas’ playing partner for the Bellerive stroll was Mike Tucker, the club’s long-time head pro. A fine player himself, Tucker has accompanied innumerable headliners – pros and amateurs – at Bellerive, site of this week’s PGA Championship (tee times). “I’ve played this golf course hundreds of times, with a lot of very good players,” Tucker said. “But that was the most spectacular display of driving I’ve ever seen.”
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It’s been a thumbs-up season for Justin Thomas, who won last week’s WGC Bridgestone Invitational and strides into the PGA Championship with plenty of momentum.
Fast forward to Sunday and Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. After two early-season victories, Thomas had settled into a place-and-show personality. A tie for eighth at the Memorial in June was the highlight. But at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, “JT” stood for “jam time.” The world No. 2 opened for business with 65-64, grabbed a lead on Saturday with a 67 and closed shop with a workman-like 69 on Sunday.
It’s a formula that wins major championships. Get the lead on Saturday, make pars and lip-sync to “Badfinger” on Sunday: If you want it, here it is, come and get it … but you better hurry ’cause it’s going fast.
The day before arriving at Bellerive, before tackling a 7,500-yard, par-70 property that he manhandled two months ago, Thomas got his third victory of the 2017-18 season and demonstrated that his game is locked and loaded.
“I’m just in a great place mentally right now,” Thomas said. “I just was so patient and calm all week [at Firestone].”
As you know, momentum is huge in sports, and the computer news will tell you that trends can’t be dismissed. In short, everyone else at Bellerive is playing for second, right? Well … here’s the rub:
Players don’t often win in back-to-back weeks. There are so many factors: frame of mind, health, golf course, horoscope, tea leaves … From week to week, things can change, and any number of things can go wrong. And that’s to say nothing of the competition, which at a major championship is as good as it gets. Last week was your week; everything went right. Chances, are this one belongs to someone else.
Then there is the fact that Thomas is the reigning champion. With the PGA moving up on the schedule beginning next year, this 100th edition is “Glory’s Last Shot” at being glory’s last shot. But since the PGA transitioned from match play to a stroke play in 1958, only one golfer has conquered it consecutively: Tiger Woods. He did so in 1999-2000, when he had encompassing power over every living being in the universe, and he did it again in 2006-07, when he still was doing such things.
That’s it, over 60 years. Other than Woods – at the height of his powers – no one has won this major back to back. Moreover, since 1980 only two have won the PGA after winning the WGC Bridgestone the previous week: Woods in ’07 and Rory McIlroy in ’14.
Hold the phone, stop the presses and rethink the pool. Justin Thomas can’t possibly win this week, right? There’s not a snowball’s chance in St. Louis, or rather, well … here’s the rub:
The last player to win on consecutive PGA Tour weeks was Thomas, who won the SBS Tournament of Champions and Sony Open in Hawaii last year. Oh, and a couple of months ago, Brooks Koepka became the first since Curtis Strange in 1988-89 and only the second since Ben Hogan in 1950-51 to win consecutive U.S. Opens.
Momentum is huge in sports, trends can’t be dismissed … and none of it necessarily means a thing.
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @WWDOD