Voices
August 08, 2020

PGA Championship 2020: Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas are two friends who are worlds apart

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Harry How

They played 18 holes. Only six were needed.

Six holes to see this third-round pairing of Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth was not just a pairing but a microcosm. On where the two have been. On where they are. On where they might be headed. Extrapolating anything, let alone something of merit, from six holes can be reckless; one could convince themselves whatever they imagine through that prism. Yet there was no literal or figurative fog at Harding Park Saturday morning.

It’s been three years since Jordan Spieth has won. Revisionist history has dubbed this period a drought, which is not entirely true. He had two consecutive runner-ups in playoff events in 2017, nearly completed the biggest comeback in tournament history at the 2018 Masters and played in the final group at the 2018 Open Championship. He has also dropped 60 spots in the World Rankings since his triumph at Royal Birkdale in 2017, and he is the rare talent whose success is measured in victories and victories only. By contrast, over this span, Thomas has won nine times, highlighted by the 2017 PGA Championship, and asserted himself as one of the three best players in the game.

In a vacuum, these trajectories could exist in parallel lanes. But theirs is a shared universe, one of friendship and rivalry. It was only a matter of when their worlds would collide.

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For posterity, the crossroads came between the sixth green and seventh tee at TPC Harding Park. Through six holes in his Saturday round the PGA Championship, Thomas—the new World No. 1 and leading candidate for Player of the Year—was four under par. Spieth, the man who once held those same credentials, four over. To those scoring at home, that's an eight-shot separation in six holes. Somehow, that disparity doesn’t do the expanse justice.

Because it wasn’t the just score. The best have bad days with poor breaks and out-of-sync swings and putts that say the cup has posted a “Sorry, we’re closed” sign. Scenes, though, are blistered into our minds, never to be erased. On Saturday, there was the sight of Spieth pulling a simple approach into a cypress. The bizarre display of sending Michael Greller ahead of the group as a forecaddie so Spieth could cool off. Even by his fidgety standards, Spieth was jumping out of putts and emphatically motioning to the left or right when they missed. His gaze was fixated downward with a weight that cannot be measured by numbers on a card.

Quite the juxtaposition from Thomas, who is a walking fusion of swagger and giddiness. When he’s on—which has been often in 2020—Thomas exudes a persona that is best described as mild annoyance at what stands before him. “You think that tucked pin is gonna stop me? Take a seat, the show is starting.” It borders on arrogance in the most complimentary way. So as Spieth struggled to keep the ball, and himself, in the ballpark, Thomas was attacking, attacking and attacking, racking up five birdies in his first seven holes. Every stride, every swing, every look had purpose.

They were the only marquee names on the course during this six-hole stretch, bestowing the attention of a made-for-TV matchup. Every shot was aired—good for Thomas, bad for Spieth—further underlining the conflict. To say nothing of how the visuals were presented. Through two days ESPN has been praised for its coverage of this championship, and while most of said praise comes from the notion of showing live golf, it is nevertheless warranted. However, the Worldwide Leader should also be credited for bringing an outside voice to the proceedings, no more apparent than its discussion of Spieth during the third round.

ESPN took dead aim at a topic CBS, NBC, Golf Channel—and frankly, most print and digital media—have danced around: Spieth ain’t right. Sure, his woes have been discussed ad nauseum, but these discussions, without fail, are inflected with curiosity and hope and latitude. ESPN was exceedingly blunt on the subject, highlighted by former World No. 1. David Duval saying Spieth “needs to let go of [instructor] Cameron McCormick's hand and start digging it out of the dirt himself." Duval further assessed Spieth wasn’t playing golf but rather trying to make golf swings, and opined that if Spieth was chasing distance it was a fool’s errand.

For the record, Duval’s observations were not “hot takes.” They were fair and true, and considering Duval’s own experiences with career struggle, should be given credence. The coverage's attention on Speith, even as he went south, was understandable: They are in the entertainment business, and with the leaders six hours away from teeing off, this was as compelling as it gets. Perhaps the biggest shot of all: After years of broadcast teams running “Jordan Spieth’s buddy Justin Thomas” into the ground, ESPN turned the tables, calling Spieth “Justin Thomas’ friend.” It was funny, yet also a reminder of the new dynamic.

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The spotlight settled on the duo’s final 12 holes. Tiger Woods was on the course, commanding his usual attention, and Thomas considerably cooled, playing the final 11 holes three over to finish with a two-under 68. Spieth never got right, a birdie on the 18th giving him a six-over 76, placing him last among those who made the cut.

One round at Harding Park remains but of greater interest is what happens next. It is now Thomas that is on the all-time trajectory; only Tiger and Jack Nicklaus had more wins on tour before age 27. He will be one of the favorites to win the FedEx Cup Playoffs when they begin in two weeks. Spieth ... well, as we've been told, it's a process.

Perhaps Spieth is right when he insists he’s headed in a positive direction. And although it seems improbable, maybe Thomas levels off. As Spieth’s past three years have proved, the present is no guarantee of the future. Perhaps that’s why, when asked about Spieth’s frustrations, Thomas spoke with understanding and conviction.

“I know he's going to be fine. I'm not just saying it because he's one of my best friends," Thomas said. "I mean, just I've seen him get it around when he's not playing well. I've seen him play well when he is playing well. All of us go through little spurts. It's just for him, this has just been a tough one. I mean, he's going to be fine. All it takes sometimes is one week and all your confidence gets back.”

Or maybe Thomas was just being empathetic. That’s what good buddies are for.