Buddies and rivals: Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods. Pix: USGA
One is not too sure if it is by design or just sheer luck of the draw. Or is it to ensure that Tiger Woods is comfortable when he comes out to play. For the second Major in a row, Woods has been paired with Justin Thomas, and the third time in six starts in 2020. They played the first two days together at the G Genesis Invitational (a tournament that Woods hosts), then at the PGA and now at the US Open. Incidentally, Woods and Thomas have been paired together for first two rounds at Genesis for last three years.
Late last year, they played the first two days together at the Hero World Challenge (also a Woods hosted event) and they also battled each other on the final day. Then they paired up at two team matches in the Presidents Cup. Clearly, they relish each other’s company. So, if and when Woods can have it his way, Thomas would be his partner.
While Woods is a legend with 15 Majors, 82 PGA Tour wins, more than a 100 worldwide victories, Thomas, 17 years his junior, is a legend in the making with 14 worldwide wins, but just one Major. While catching up with Woods on any of the accounts will take a long time, for the present Thomas enjoys beating Woods each time they are paired together. More often than not, Thomas wins, but Woods beat him in the Hero event in Bahamas and that left Thomas fuming.
Woods wants to get his revenge when he can, and Thomas wants to extend that gap as wide as he can. They love battling each in tournaments as much as they do while at the ‘friendlies’ on their home course. Bottom line: they love every chance to play together.
Fast forward to the ongoing US Open. They were paired together. Again. And Thomas outscored Woods by a mile – he shot 5-under 65, the lowest ever at a US Open at Winged Foot, while Woods rode a yo-yo machine for 3-over 73. A gap of eight must be hurting Woods even more than his ageing bones. He will crave for revenge in the second round.
Thomas and Woods were a study in contrast in the first round. Thomas was rock steady and made few, if any, mistakes. Woods meanwhile kept moving up and down. Errors punctuated by some fine birdies and he was always trying to stay afloat as it were before the bogey-double bogey finish derailed him to 3-over and left him needing a solid second round to make the cut. It remains to be seen if Woods can draw some energy from the Thomas juggernaut and haul himself to get into the weekend. In an event like this a round like Thomas had on Thursday can suddenly bring back a player into contention. Woods is capable of that and more.
On Thursday Woods opened with three pars and then had back-to-back bogeys followed by a birdie on sixth. A bogey on eighth was followed by birdies on 9-10-11 at which point he was 1-under, while Thomas was cruising at 4-under.
A second pair of bogeys on 14-15 meant he again over par. A birdie on 16th saw him get to par, which wouldn’t have been a bad score. But three shots in last two holes, was a disaster.
Meanwhile, Thomas opened with a birdie, gave it back on fourth, but birdies on sixth and ninth saw him turn in 2-under. Thomas and Woods seemed to be feeding off each with three birdies in a row from nine to 11th. Thomas stayed on without dropping a shot and birdied the 18th, where Woods slipped to a double.
Thomas at five-under is followed by Patrick Reed, Matthew Wolff and Thomas Pieters, while the freshly minted Dad, Rory McIlroy at last has a start he likes in a Major with a 3-under 67 and he the company of a 47-year-old Lee Westwood at that score in Tied-fifth.
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson had two birdies, three bogeys and a double in his 73, which put him at T-71 alongside Woods.
Woods will need a Thomas-like round in the second round to get on track. But if there is one player who can get him to do that, it is Thomas. Woods has him inside the ropes with him.
Interestingly, both Thomas and Woods are managed by Excel Sports – which also manages Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose among others and the stable has just added the latest star in the making Collin Morikawa, who is the third player in the group for the first two days of the 2020 US Open.
Thomas met Woods for the first time in 2015 at the Players Championship and became friends from there on and it grew as Thomas spent a lot of time when Woods was going through a tough period with his back and other injuries. Thomas was among those who spent time with Woods; Fowler was another. With time they started playing a lot together when Woods was not ‘tournament fit’. That friendship helped Woods stay positive and work towards a comeback, which did happen. Woods remembers all that.
For Thomas it is a matter of seeing, playing with and learning from one of the game’s greatest players. There is no idol worship – just plain friendship. But when it comes to golf there is nothing more, they love than beating the other amidst a lot of trash talk and needling.
Playing with Woods has made Thomas stronger by the day, and Woods stays motivated while playing with a guy who had barely learnt to walk when he was already winning Majors. It suits both and it makes for great golf viewing for us.