Thursday 26 April 2018

The rise of the young Americans

US PGA winner Thomas is latest to emerge from a gifted crop of friends to show up their European peers

Justin Thomas lifts the Wanamaker trophy after breaking his Major duck. Photo: USA Today Sports
Justin Thomas lifts the Wanamaker trophy after breaking his Major duck. Photo: USA Today Sports
Justin Thomas with his young pal Jordan Spieth

James Corrigan

The photo shows young teenaged golfers, sitting on a bank, munching burgers and telling each other dreams of how one will win the Open and then the other will win the US PGA.

Fast forward 10 years and fantasy is reality, the picture is the present, and Justin Thomas has emulated his friend and put his Wanamaker Trophy against Jordan Spieth's Claret Jug.

Shoulder-to-shoulder and back-to-back Major champions. It almost never happens like this. One prodigy leaves the other behind and the other is left with a lifetime of wondering "what did he have that I didn't?". Yet Thomas can mix it with Spieth as an equal now. Granted, the latter has three Majors, while Thomas - Spieth's elder by 84 days - was "only" breaking through at Quail Hollow on Sunday night.

But after being primarily famous as Spieth's best friend - despite multiple PGA Tour victories, including three this season before arriving in North Carolina - Thomas has finally escaped the shadow. "'Frustration' probably isn't the right word," Thomas said, when asked about the years trying to survive in Spieth's slipstream. "'Jealousy' most definitely is. I mean, there's no reason to hide it."

There is no need now, that is for sure. The son of a PGA club pro, who, himself, was the son of a club pro, Thomas was the envy of the entire golfing world as he finished off his two-shot victory in a performance which proved he has the mettle for the majors.

When he walked up the hill at the back of the 18th, there was Spieth in his civvies to greet him. After they high-fived and hugged, Thomas said: "I finally got one like you," "No,'' Spieth replied. "I don't have this one."

Of course, Spieth went to the 99th US PGA looking to take Tiger Woods's record as the youngest player ever to complete a grand slam. It was not to be, but that did not stop Spieth celebrating. He knew what it meant to Thomas and also to Thomas's father, Mike, who has taught him since he was 18 months old, and also to Thomas's grandfather, Paul. Both tried and failed to crack the big league themselves and the fact that their boy earned family redemption was a huge part of what made it special.

Two years ago, Thomas was a swearing, club-throwing rookie who outraged a member - in the Wyndham Championship gallery with his child - who let him know via Twitter. Thomas was ashamed and responded, promising to change his ways. In truth, some of the petulance has still been evident, but not in Charlotte, where he plainly came of age.

However, this is not just a personal story. It is an acceleration of a trend which will be giving Thomas Bjorn, Europe's captain, sleepless nights as he thinks forward to next year's Ryder Cup; and that is even before the Dane includes world No 1 Dustin Johnson in the equation. No longer is the whisper that the young Americans are coming. This Major campaign has highlighted they are already here. Consider that the last three major winners are all under 30: Brooks Koepka, 27, Spieth and Thomas, 24, and consider that this is the first time that a trio of under-30s won successive majors since 1997, when Woods, Ernie Els and Justin Leonard all prevailed.

And then understand that this Stateside youth movement is self-fuelled. For it was not just Spieth who waited around to salute Thomas, but Rickie Fowler and Bud Cauley, too.

"It's awesome and I think they know I would do the same for them," Thomas said. "It's a cool little friendship we have. I know Rickie was a couple of groups in front and I was probably through nine when Jordan finished. But Bud stuck around for an entire 18 holes, not knowing what would happen and I think that kind of shows where the game is right now and where all of us are.

"We obviously all want to win, want to beat the other guys. But if we can't, we at least want to enjoy it with our friends. This is going to make them more hungry, just like it did to me when Jordan won the 'British' last month."

That is an alarming thought for Bjorn, particularly when it is put alongside the displays of the European young guns in the 'Big Four' this year. Tommy Fleetwood, aside, the blue-and-gold baby brigade have largely gone backwards this year, after overshadowing their US under-30 peers in the 2016 Majors.


Danny Willett, last year's Masters champion, is in dramatic freefall, while Tyrrell Hatton, who finished fifth and 10th in the last two majors of the last campaign, has missed the cut in all four. Matt Fitzpatrick is another youngster who will feel he fell woefully short - and do not even talk about their Pied Piper. Rory McIlroy is in such poor spirits with his health and his mind that the 28-year-old is considering taking off the rest of the year.

They can all come again, but they had better do so quickly as the Americans are stacking up. It is almost perverse that Fowler has yet to get over the line at a major, considering how many times he has been in contention, while Patrick Reid - Mr Stars and Stripes himself - at last has a Major top 10 to his name with his tie for second.

As another member of the "Class of 11", Daniel Berger is close friends with Spieth and Thomas and his tweet said it all on Sunday. "I can't even explain how I'm feeling! @JustinThomas34 makes me want to hit range balls for the next 5 hrs!"

The US has all the momentum and the kids are having all the fun. They have made America great at golf again. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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