Masters 2018: Thomas primed to replace Spieth as poster boy of US golf?
From "Jordan Spieth's friend" to Masters contender, Justin Thomas can become the face of US golf with Augusta glory, writes Peter Hanson.
When Jordan Spieth battled through an infamous last-round meltdown to win his third major title at last year's Open, Justin Thomas was among those to celebrate a remarkable victory.
There may well have been an epiphany for Thomas as he and another of his close PGA Tour friends Rickie Fowler held the Claret Jug from which Spieth toasted his success at Royal Birkdale.
Amid that moment of rejoicing in in his compatriot's triumph, Thomas was faced with a crossroads leading to two starkly different destinations.
In one direction was the exalted plain occupied by Spieth, who just four days before turning 24 had won three major titles. In the other was the harsh landscape surveyed by perennial nearly man Fowler who, now 29, has top-five finishes in all of golf's majors but, crucially, no victories.
Champion cheers!— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) July 24, 2017
Thomas was already a PGA Tour winner by the start of 2017, but was still widely referred to as "Jordan Spieth's friend". The unintentional insinuation being that his greatest achievement would likely be his association with a player tipped to cement a legacy among the game's elite.
By the end of the year, such a notion had been emphatically quashed.
Thomas' list of achievements in one season would be enough to satisfy most pros in a career. Five PGA Tour victories, FedEx Cup champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year.
Undoubtedly the most significant moment came at Quail Hollow in August when a final-round 68 secured Thomas a maiden major title at the US PGA Championship.
He had already hinted at making a major breakthrough at June's U.S. Open by shooting the lowest score in relation to par in the tournament's history, ultimately falling away to finish ninth.
Thomas' crazy major victory, Rickie teases us & Rahm's backward chip— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) 14 August 2017
The Takeaway pic.twitter.com/uCap0EbvGD
Perhaps the taste of champagne and the feel of the Claret Jug during his celebrations with Spieth gave Thomas a thirst for major glory that had to be quenched.
Whatever the reason, nobody was in any doubt by this point as to his credentials, which certainly amounted to more than being Spieth's pal. And Thomas unquestionably has the form to make sure that come Sunday Sergio Garcia is presenting him with a first green jacket.
Since making his major breakthrough, Thomas has recorded Tour victories, lost a play-off to Phil Mickelson at the Mexico Championship, and just missed out on usurping Dustin Johnson as world number one by losing to eventual winner Bubba Watson at last week's Dell Technologies Match Play.
After that failed summit bid, Thomas was frank about the nerves that affected his chances.
"I couldn't stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest, and what it would mean," he confessed.
"There was a lot of attention on becoming world number one and I allowed myself to get distracted. It's been a good lesson for going forward; I need to be mentally stronger than that."
Winning is fun. pic.twitter.com/LywwJJqyg9— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) 25 March 2018
Such a candid recognition of that shortcoming will only add to the burning desire in Thomas to crown his rapid rise to the top at Augusta.
The romantics will be desperate to see Thomas and Spieth fighting it out atop the leaderboard to evoke memories of the legendary battles contested by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
It is not inconceivable, either, that his main Augusta antagonist will be his idol Tiger Woods, a man whose brains he has picked during the 14-time major champion's seemingly successful latest comeback from back surgery.
But whatever the circumstances, if Thomas does get the job done then there may truly be a new poster boy for US golf.