NORTON -- By the end of a dripping wet afternoon at TPC-Boston yesterday, the Big Names had Justin Thomas surrounded. Today, under expected sunny skies, he gets a chance to prove if he's ready to join them.
Thomas has won $7.37 million this year and four tournaments, including his first major last month at the PGA Championship. He is the leader in the race for Tour Player of the Year and seems to be blossoming into what he always dreamed he could be. But neither that nor his remarkable run yesterday of eight birdies have yet elevated him to the level of the names that will be breathing down his neck today in the final round of the Dell Technologies Championship.
Much has been made the last few days about how recent FedEx Cup playoffs have been dominated by the sport's biggest names as they all rush to become the last 30 players standing at the Tour Championship later this month, when a $10 million bonus will be handed out to the winner. For all his success this season, Thomas is not yet on that A list, but Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson are -- even though the latter has not played particularly well lately until this week.
JT made 48 feet of putts during all of Round 1.— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 4, 2017
JT made a 49-foot putt on one hole in Round 3.
Let's look at it one more time. pic.twitter.com/oEQGhpb55e
As luck would have it -- be that good or bad -- when Thomas walked off the course yesterday he found himself not only tied with Marc Leishman at 12-under but facing the lurking presence of Spieth at 10-under, DJ at 9 and Mickelson at 8. More concerning, all three finished with the kind of flourish that made the week-long discussion of the Big Names winning these events all the more difficult to ignore.
Spieth birdied three of the final five holes for a 5-under-par 66 while DJ, who beat Spieth in a playoff last weekend at the Northern Trust in the first round of the playoffs, birdied four of the final five holes for his own 66 that left him 3 shots off the lead. As for Mickelson, his reputation more than his production this season has left him with the kind of long shadow that can make a young man like Thomas think.
Earlier last week, Mickelson cryptically claimed his doctor had discovered some malady that had been disturbing his ability to focus and cured it. He refused to elaborate but his rounds of 69-67-69 have him at 8-under, leaving Rickie Fowler to ponder why the playoffs seem to bring out the best in golf's biggest names.
"Sometimes not being in good position, kind of back is up against the wall and knowing they need to make something happen ... to either make sure they are set up for East Lake or move them forward ... when that happens guys that are the best players in the world find a way to just get the job done," Fowler said, knowing Mickelson is in such a position if he hopes to be selected for the Presidents Cup team.
"I think something like that this week. You're looking at Phil kind of back up against the wall, knowing he needs to do something to show Strick (Cup captain Steve Stricker) and the guys on the team that he still wants to be there. It's amazing when guys are put in those situations (that they respond). It's no coincidence, I don't think."
Most top-10s this season:— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 4, 2017
1. Thomas - 10
2. Spieth - 9
4. D.J. - 8
6. Casey - 7
They're all T11 or better to start Rd. 4. pic.twitter.com/3LwddEcVJr
Certainly it is not. It's why the Big Names are the Big Names ... because when their moments came, they won. Now it is Thomas who seems to be on the cusp of becoming golf's next Big Thing, a position long expected of him. But it's a long putt still from expectations to exhortations.
He and Spieth seem to be in a two-man battle for Player of the Year but it is moments like today where a young player like Thomas can enhance his status in the fan's hard eyes. Moments when all around him are the names the average fan most readily recognizes. Names like Mickelson, Spieth and Johnson.
DJ and Spieth are presently Nos. 1 and 2 in the world and the latter had the chance to become the youngest player in golf history to win the career grand slam at this year's PGA Championship only to be stymied by Thomas (and his own jitters). Today Thomas is looking down the barrel of three of the top-5 players in the world (young Jon Rahm being the other at 9-under). He himself is No. 6, which is nothing to sneeze at but, frankly, who remembers the sixth-ranked anything in sports today?
No one does unless it's someone with the kind of long history of dominance Mickelson has, the kind of resume that even at the age of 47 makes his name closing in on you on the leaderboard a tight fix and a testing moment for an apple-cheeked 24-year-old like Thomas.
Although Spieth is Thomas' contemporary, he has shot almost immediately into the consciousness of golf fans, winning three majors, 11 tournaments, the 2015 FedEx Cup championship and Tour Player of the Year. He was the second youngest to win the Masters and the youngest player since Bobby Jones in 1923 to win the U.S. Open. With Tiger Woods in the woods, Spieth, Rory McIlroy and, of late, Johnson have formed their own Big Three. To crack it, or at least join it, you have to win in situations like the one Justin Thomas finds himself today.
Good as he is, and Thomas is quite good, a win today would give him five victories this season, including his first major and very likely a lock on Player of the Year unless Spieth were to win the Tour Championship himself. Asked if he had a preference of winning the FedEx or being named Player of the Year, Thomas didn't hesitate.
"FedEx Cup pays better, I know that," Thomas joked, knowing that $10 million bonus is the gift that keeps on giving. "I just feel like if you win the FedEx Cup, in reality, you obviously had a great year. You played well when you needed to. There's not many names on that trophy. It would be really cool to be part of it. I think winning trophies is motivating enough for me. I really enjoy that."
Thomas understands the recent history of FedEx Cup events is that the Big Names win -- McIlroy last year, Spieth the year before. It has not always been that way but we live in a world where 140 characters is now considered as hefty a tome as "War and Peace" and history is measured in weeks, not years. He knows then how fans' minds work.
"I would say the best are going to win," Thomas conceded, not delving much deeper into what the definition of "the best" might be. Perhaps that's because he understands if he holds off the Big Names today, he will have taken another step toward putting his own name not only on the FedEx Cup trophy but on the Big Boys' list as well.
This article is written by Ron Borges from Boston Herald and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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