THE SITUATION did not look promising. Justin Thomas's tee shot had found a fairway bunker on the 4th hole at Whistling Straits, the scenic layout overlooking Lake Michigan. It was Saturday, the third round of the PGA Championship.
Jimmy Johnson, Thomas's caddie, is one of the best around. Most recently, Johnson was on the bag for Steve Stricker during the best stretch in Stricker's career, an early-40s run during which he cracked the top 10 in the World Ranking. Johnson knows golf like Wine Spectator knows grapes.
Johnson did the math and gave Thomas his number: 246 yards to the pin. As is his wont, Thomas didn't waste much time. He contemplated the lie, selected 4-iron, settled into the sand and pulled the trigger. He's a feel player, a throwback in an era of launch angles, spin rates and smash factors. Thomas went after the shot with a powerful if not quite effortless swing. The ball came to rest on the green, 20 feet from the cup.
As Johnson retold the story a day later, the hint of a smile on his weathered face undermined an otherwise deadpan delivery. "That was kind of impressive," he said.
That shot may tell all you need to know about Thomas. He is 22, remarkably long off the tee for his 5'10" frame—he's top 20 in driving distance stats—and has a big (i.e., lucrative) future. When Johnson got the offer to carry for Thomas, Stricker, 48, all but ordered his close friend to take the job, telling him it was "a no-brainer." Johnson reluctantly agreed to make the move. The PGA was the new duo's fourth event together, and Johnson hasn't been disappointed. Thomas was fourth at the Quicken Loans National in July and 18th at the PGA. He sits 36th heading into the FedEx Cup playoffs on the strength of seven top 10 finishes.
"He can hit shots that other guys can't, like Tiger used to," Johnson says. "Now, I'm not comparing him to Tiger Woods, I'm just saying he's got shots that a lot of guys don't."
Thomas is among a handful of young players who seem poised to take over the game ... if they haven't already. The top three players in the World Ranking are, in order, 22, 26 and 27 years old. Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day have made golf a young man's game again. Sorry about that, Tiger and Phil.
You haven't heard much about Thomas yet because he hasn't scored that breakthrough victory. He has contended a few times, most notably at the Players in May, when he became the first player to rack up 10 birdies in a round at the Stadium course during a Saturday 65. "That was pretty cool," says Thomas, who closed with a 75 and slipped to 24th.
THOMAS IS a member of the self-named Class of 2011, a sixsome of former star junior players who have gone from high school to pro golf in four years or less. Spieth is the class president. The Dallas native left Texas after his freshman season in 2012 and turned golf upside down this year by winning two majors and nearly winning the other two.
Daniel Berger of Florida State has five top 10s in his rookie season. Georgia Tech's Ollie Schniederjans, a three-time All-America, stayed amateur so he could graduate and keep his exemptions into the U.S. and British Opens this year. All he did was finish 12th at St. Andrews. Stanford's Patrick Rodgers, who shares a house with Thomas and another friend in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., took advantage of sponsor exemptions to earn temporary Tour status; and Argentina's Emiliano Grillo, who skipped college golf to try the European tour, scored a runner-up finish in Dubai and was 61st at Whistling Straits.
Should Grillo be in the Class of '11? Thomas laughs. "Well, nobody really knows how old Emiliano is because he didn't go to school in the States and then he turned pro," he says. "But, yeah, he's one of us. We all know him."
Old-timers believe the Q school class of '72 was the best crop of newcomers. It included future Hall of Famers Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins and David Graham plus John Mahaffey, Steve Melnyk, Bruce Fleisher and Allen Miller. However, the Class of '11 is off to a fast start.
"It's really cool to have these guys as friends," Spieth says. "I wish we had a picture from player dining at one of the AJGA events. You'd see seven or eight faces in our class who are going to be on the PGA Tour next year. That's pretty amazing."
Spieth and Thomas go way back. They met at an AJGA tournament in Texas, Spieth thinks, when they were 13 or 14. As he recalls, they battled it out for two days and Spieth won. Thomas took the next one, and so it went. Thomas won a 36-hole event in France and a spot with Juli Inkster in the Evian tournament pro-am. Spieth caddied for him.
"Jordan is probably a better player than a caddie," Thomas says. Asked about Spieth's deficiencies as a looper, Thomas passed up a chance to have some fun. "I don't remember, really," he said, laughing, "but he probably lost a towel somewhere."
Davis Love III's son, Dru, played a year with Thomas at Alabama. Early on, Dad was analyzing the lineup. "I was saying, 'Well, this guy hits it a long way, this guy hits it pretty straight,'" Davis recalls. "And Dru jumps in and says, 'No, Dad. Justin Thomas is the one. He can really, really play.'"
Now Thomas is securely nestled on the PGA Tour. He has no apparent weaknesses, although Thomas believes he could improve his chipping and pitching. Then again, after watching Spieth this year, who doesn't feel inferior in those departments?
"Justin hits it far enough, high enough and is solid at every part of the game," Love says. "I would bet he'll make the Ryder Cup team."
THOMAS GREW up in Louisville and got a handle on the game from his dad, Mike, a club professional at Harmony Landing in Goshen, Ky. If his game gets off-kilter, Justin occasionally checks swing video or talks it over with Dad. Sometimes he chats with instructor Matt Killen about putting. Mostly, Justin just plays.
"I'm playing well right now," he said after the final round of the PGA. "I'm really close to breaking out."
That would be great, because then maybe he wouldn't have to keep fielding so many questions about his friend Spieth.
The Quad City Times had this lead on the second round of the John Deere Classic: "Jordan Spieth is chasing what looks like a version of himself. Justin Thomas, who is 12 under par and has a one-shot lead ... is 22. Spieth turns 22 later this month. Thomas made a 36-hole cut in a PGA Tour event when he was 16. Spieth did the same...."
Spieth won the Deere. Thomas tied for fifth. The story made Thomas chuckle. "There is no rivalry with Jordan," he says. "I have a lot to do to get to his level. I mean, a lot."
Nevertheless, the future looks promising. Just ask Jimmy Johnson.
"I WISH WE HAD A PICTURE FROM PLAYER DINING AT ONE OF THE AJGA EVENTS," SAYS SPIETH. "YOU'D SEE SEVEN OR EIGHT FACES IN OUR CLASS WHO ARE GOING TO BE ON THE PGA TOUR NEXT YEAR."
"HE CAN HIT SHOTS THAT OTHER GUYS CAN'T, LIKE TIGER USED TO," JOHNSON SAYS OF THOMAS. "I'M NOT COMPARING HIM TO TIGER. I'M JUST SAYING HE'S GOT SHOTS THAT A LOT OF GUYS DON'T."
FedEx Cup Playoffs Fearless Predictions
The majors are more draining than ever. The top Americans and the leading non-Europeans know they have a Presidents Cup in South Korea on the horizon, and they might be pacing themselves. You have to be all-in to win this playoff. So I'm going with a European who has been playing well and has no particular reason to feel drained from the majors: Sergio García. Señor Sergio plays for money about as well as anybody, and this four-event playoff is all about the cash.
Gary Van Sickle
Somebody may get hot at the right time and pull a Billy Horschel, but Jordan Spieth is the best player in the world. Though he has to be drained from chasing the four majors, he does have four wins and 14 top 10s in 21 starts. Spieth missed out on the Grand Slam, but he'll take the FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus, which, remarkably, is less than he has already banked in 2015.
Rory McIlroy will dominate. His fellow members of the new Big Three—Jordan Spieth and Jason Day—almost certainly are spent from a wild summer chasing glory. Rory, meanwhile, had more than a month to sit on his couch, stewing. The big ballparks in the so-called playoffs favor McIlroy's smashmouth driving. Plus, he's quite prideful and no doubt eager to recapture the spotlight.
Photograph by Robert Beck For Sports Illustrated
SMALL WONDER Thomas measures a mere 5'10", but don't be fooled by his slight build; he ranks in the top 20 on Tour in driving distance.
KOHJIRO KINNO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
FINISHING KICK Berger lost in a playoff at the Honda, where his Sunday 64 matched the low round of the week.
FRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
FRIENDLY RIVALS Spieth (left) was a celebrated second at the PGA, while Thomas quietly came home 18th in only his second appearance in a major.