MELBOURNE—Earlier this year Justin Thomas was trying to wrap his head around the idea of playing for U.S. captain Tiger Woods in the Presidents Cup, saying, “If you would have told me when I was a kid that I could play on a Presidents Cup team with Tiger Woods as my captain, I probably would have fainted or something like that.”
Get the smelling salts, because in all likelihood, Thomas will be paired with the captain for Thursday’s opening four-ball session at Royal Melbourne Golf Club.
Few players have grown closer to Woods than Thomas, 26, who is one of several PGA Tour players, including Tiger, who now call Jupiter, Fla., home. It was Thomas and Rickie Fowler, the latter whom Woods selected to fill in for the injured Brooks Koepka, who often reached out to Woods to play and practice with them as he slowly began his comeback from spinal fusion surgery.
“Justin Thomas might be one of Tiger’s best friends now,” said Paul Azinger, lead golf analyst for NBC and a former Ryder Cup captain.
Well, maybe more like a little brother.
But it’s apparent the two have a vibe together, and their pairing in the first round of last week’s Hero World Challenge—and the pairings are arranged by Woods, the tournament host—suggests that they’ll share the same fairways sometime this week.
“Yeah, it would be cool,” Thomas, playing in his second Presidents Cup, said, “but at the end of the day, I'm out there to win a point. It doesn't matter if I'm with him or if I'm with P-Reed [Patrick Reed] or Bryson [DeChambeau] or Rick or whoever it is. I'm out there to try and win a point.”
Sure, OK. But having a chance to pair with arguably the greatest player in golf history has to be a proposition to savor, no?
“It's something that definitely would be, if you're looking back at it when I was a kid, it's something that would be really, really cool,” Thomas agreed. “But I think, at least what I've told him personally is that first and foremost this week, he's our captain and he needs to make sure that he has our team ready. And if he wants to pair me with him, like all of us, I'm sure he wants to play a lot.”
An 11-time winner on the PGA Tour, including the 2017 PGA Championship, Thomas should be up to the task. He will not need smelling salts, as jokingly suggested earlier. He has spent enough time around Woods at home to be fully comfortable with him. And in competition, Thomas has lost to Woods head-to-head when they were paired together just once, and that came last week in the final round of the Hero. And only after Thomas hit into the water on the 72nd hole for a closing double-bogey.
Thomas made his Ryder Cup debut last year at Le Golf National in France, where the Americans suffered their second-worst defeat in the history of that event. But Thomas played solidly, going 4-1 while paired four times with his longtime friend Jordan Spieth. At Liberty National two years ago he went 3-1-1 with 2 ½ points coming via a pairing with Fowler.
Thomas and Spieth long had talked about the chance to play together in one of these team events, and U.S. captain Jim Furyk obliged while breaking up the successful tandem of Spieth and Reed. (Which made Reed none too happy in getting stuck with … Woods. Ah, but all is forgiven now.)
Spieth, however, didn’t qualify for this year’s U.S. team on points and he was much too far down the list for Woods to consider making him a wild-card pick.
There is no denying that Thomas wishes Spieth were on this U.S. squad. “He’s a great player, and he was a great teammate last year, so, yeah, of course I miss him,” he said. “We all miss him. He has a great record. I know he took vacation this week and doing his own thing. At the same time, I have to think about what I have to do here and getting points for the team.
“I’m sure we’re going to have many more of these together, many more good ones.”
In the meantime, Thomas will have a day or more beside the player he idolized growing up. Not a bad replacement.
“I’m just hoping to have a great week and do my part and play well,” Thomas said.
The captain, who with three wins can become the winningest player in the history of the Presidents Cup, is hoping for that, too.