If I’m talking golf in February, you probably know why. If I’m breaking down four rounds at the Honda Classic, you probably know whose 38 days from Augusta, with a game that’s quickly rounding into form, and the chance to get back to the top of the mountain. Hell, to make it feel like he was hardly even gone.
I’m talking about, of course, JUSTIN THOMAS. Who the hell did you think I was talking about, The Cat? No, Eldrick spent 72 holes dialing up his irons, ironing out his bazooka, and ending the tournament right back where he started it — level par. All while my man J.T. , once again showed why he’s quickly becoming the best closer in the game.
The reigning Fed Ex Cup champ just hoisted the big check for the 2nd time this season. The 24-year old just won the EIGHTH tournament of his career. The last three guys to win 8 times before turning 25 were Jordan Spieth, Tiger and Jack Nicklaus. That’s good company to keep. And that’s also seven wins in his last 31 starts, the type of ruthless efficiency last seen by the Cat in his prime, before the bad back, the half-dozen swing changes, and that tree he bounced his escalade off of.
Maybe more impressive than the win was the way he did it. JT got it done not because of his A game, but because he never showed his C game. On a course covered with water and the wind howling, Thomas had complete control of his golf ball. He made just five bogeys the entire tournament. And while his power game is what amazes people, heading down 18 tied for the lead with Luke List, it was his mental game that got it done.
Because after bombing a 341 yard drive, Thomas only had 212 yards to the green. And while his playing partner took dead aim at the flag and had a long eagle look, Thomas didn’t go for the hero shot over water from the thick rough; he laid up. And while that left him with a wedge in his hand while Lisk had his flat stick, Thomas nearly holed his wedge from the fairway, had a tap in birdie — and won the tournament on the first playoff hole when he carded another one. The win moved Thomas to #3 in the world. But anybody watching knows that there’s nobody hotter on the planet, and nobody’s going into Augusta with more momentum — or confidence — than J.T.
As for the other guy… I’ll be straight — I saw a ton of progress out of Eldrick. Because after putting his driver in a soft pretzel stand a few football fields left of the fairway on Thursday, he at least kept the big stick in play when he pulled it out of the bag. And he had his iron game dialed in — distance control and sharpness you couldn’t have expected after watching him make a mess out of The Riv.
If you’re looking for positives to take away, check these two stats: Tiger finished second in the field in driving distance at 318 yards. He finished first in proximity to the hole. Those are the kind of stats that usually mean you’re hoisting a trophy, not finishing by yourself in 12th. But the big miss is still killing the Cat, just like the Bear Trap did — finishing those three holes 8 over par while playing the rest of the golf course at 8 under.
But the trend line is going the right direction. T12 is a lot better than DNF. Or MC. And if you’re wondering how the back is holding up, consider one more number: 128.42. That’s the club head speed in miles-per-hour that Tiger was generating this weekend, a number that would lead the PGA tour every year since they started keeping the stat. That’s amazing. And that’s WAY ahead of schedule.
Now ahead of schedule is a long way from winning tournaments. And before The Cat runs down J.T. or D.J. or Jordan, he needs to be able to run down Sam Burns. The rookie playing his 14th career round on tour turned Eldrick inside out — shooting 68 and signing a clean card while Tiger made a mess of the back 9 and rinsed another Bridgestone to give back any progress he made on the front.
But as we turn our attention towards Augusta, there’s good news, golf fans. Tiger is a legitimate golfer again. Not just a sideshow. And while he’s still got to show me he can put up red numbers and get it done with the chips on the table, just having him out there is good for the sport.