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No one is doubting Justin Thomas at PGA Championship as he tries to defend his crown

Through the years the story has taken a life of its own.

Justin Thomas was 7 years old and at Valhalla Golf Club for the 2000 PGA Championship when Tiger Woods made his famous putt in a playoff victory over Bob May.

Some accounts have made it seem as if Thomas climbed under the ropes and was kneeling on the edge of the green.

As he prepared to begin defense of his PGA Championship crown, Thomas set the record straight Wednesday, saying he watched on television from the Valhalla clubhouse when Woods walked after his ball and pointed dramatically as the birdie putt dropped on the first of three extra holes.

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“Although I probably wasn’t too smart,” Thomas said with a grin, “I was smart enough to know I wasn’t going to see any golf if I went out on the golf course. ... I was perfectly content in the middle of August in Louisville in that air-conditioned clubhouse watching on TV.”

It was a week that changed his life, making it all the more surreal that the 25-year-old Thomas is grouped with the 42-year-old Woods and two-time PGA winner Rory McIlroy for the first two rounds of the tournament that begins Thursday at Bellerive Country Club.

A Kentucky native, Thomas first played at Valhalla at 6 years old with his father, a teaching pro. To see the greatest player of his generation win there gave him a vision for what he wanted to do with his life.

“Just hearing the roars, and how many people, and the shots that Tiger was hitting, the putts he was making,” Thomas said.

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“It just got me motivated, being on that range and seeing those guys. It’s, like, man, I want to do this, even at 7 years old. ... I’m sure nothing really too intelligent was going on in my head, but I do know I recognized enough that I wanted to do that just from watching, because of how cool it was.”

PGA Championship golf tournament in St. Louis, Missouri, USA - 08 Aug 2018
Justin Thomas hits a tee shot on the 18th hole during a practice round for the 100th PGA Championship golf tournament at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis on Wednesday.
(Tannen Muary / European Pressphoto Agency)

The PGA of America’s pairing of Thomas with Woods was a no-brainer, considering the possible historic implications. After winning his first major in the PGA last year at Quail Hollow, Thomas can pull off a double.

Since the PGA went to stroke play in 1958, only one man has done that — Woods, who has accomplished it twice.

Woods hadn’t played Bellerive since 2001 and made a veteran move Wednesday, setting up a practice round with Thomas, who toured the layout during a June media visit.

Woods might need more than a few tips to beat him.

Beyond his FedEx Cup playoff title last year — and three victories this year, including last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational — Thomas is a Midwestern kid who is accustomed to summer humidity, soggy courses and less-than-smooth greens.

“It’s right in front of you,” Thomas said of this week’s course. “It’s see the fairway, hit the fairway.”

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The challenge might be more about managing expectations. There were a number of questions for Thomas at his news conference about the pressure to repeat.

“It doesn’t make it any harder to defend,” Thomas said. “The fact of the matter is that it’s hard to win a golf tournament.”

Thomas has a close friend in Brooks Koepka, who knows what the defending champ is going through. It was Koepka who successfully defended at the U.S. Open this year, becoming the first to do so since Curtis Strange in 1988-89.

Meanwhile, Jordan Spieth is on his own quest this week. With victories in the other three majors, the 25-year-old can become the second-youngest, behind Woods, to complete a career Grand Slam.

Only five players have achieved careers slams, and McIlroy (in the Masters) and Phil Mickelson (U.S. Open) already have failed this year to win their fourth major.

This is Spieth’s second try since he won his first British Open a year ago. Last year he tied for 28th in the PGA at Quail Hollow.

“I think I was probably a little more anxious last year,” said Spieth, who already has 11 career tour wins. “Going in, there was a big focus on it, given it was right after the Open Championship. It was fresh, I was in form, and going to a place that if I worked up the leaderboard, it would create a lot of noise.

“I feel somewhat under the radar this year. I’ve kind of felt that way a lot this year. I don’t mind it.”

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Struggling at times with his usual strength, putting, Spieth hasn’t won since the British Open and has been wildly inconsistent. He was third in the Masters, missed the cut in the U.S. Open and challenged in the British Open.

A final-round 76, however, dropped him to a tie for ninth at Carnoustie, Spieth concluding he made poor choices on the way he aimed a couple of tee shots.

“I’ve had instances where, like Chambers Bay [in the 2015 U.S. Open], where I didn’t think I won when I finished, and then I ended up winning the golf tournament,” Spieth said. “So it goes both ways.”

He noted the 19 runner-up finishes Jack Nicklaus had alongside winning 18 majors.

“The point is,” Spieth said, “you put yourself in position enough, it will go your way sometimes, and sometimes it won’t. It’s easier to accept if that’s the way you look at it.”

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com


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