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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Tour Championship: Justin Thomas deserves to be crowned the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year

Fitting that US PGA champion will play with British Open winner Jordan Spieth in the opening round of the Tour Championship starting Thursday

Justin Thomas, right, and and Jordan Spieth are paired together for the opening round of the Tour Championship. Tannen Maury / EPA
Justin Thomas, right, and and Jordan Spieth are paired together for the opening round of the Tour Championship. Tannen Maury / EPA

Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas will play together in the opening round of the Tour Championship on Thursday evening, seeded first and second in the FedEx Cup standings as the season-concluding series reaches its climax.

It feels rather fitting, the result of a year in which the good friends and friendly rivals have been difficult to separate. Spieth has three victories this campaign, including the British Open. It gave him a third major title, and a third leg of the career grand slam, at age 23.

Thomas, meanwhile, recorded two more wins, his haul highlighted by success at last month’s US PGA Championship. It brought him a first major crown.

Another victory for either this week at East Lake Golf Club offers plenty. The final tournament trophy of 2017 would also guarantee top spot in the season-long race. The same applies to Dustin Johnson, Marc Leishman and Jon Rahm, the players seeded three to five going into the Tour Championship. Win at East Lake, secure the FedEx crown, and that cool US$10 million (Dh36.7m) bonus cheque follows. It certainly appeals.

What is more, there is a sideshow to the Atlanta shoot-out. In a reverse of the FedEx rankings, Thomas is the front-runner to be named the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year. Spieth is arguably his closer challenger.

Johnson, the world No 1, could also lay claim to that particular honour, although his mid-year form collapsed just as the major season whirled into action. Back injured on the eve of the Masters in April, Johnson did not land one of the game’s four most coveted titles. Victory at the Northern Trust last month, the FedEx opener, did lift his year’s loot to four wins, though.

However, Thomas remains the guy to beat. Even Spieth conceded as much this week. Even his five wins, unrivalled this year, do not tell the entire story. Thomas shot a 59 at the Sony Open in January age 23, becoming the youngest player to break the sub-60 barrier. In June, he carded a 63 in the third round of the US Open at Erin Hills, the lowest score in relation to par in tournament history.

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At Quail Hollow last month, he not only deservedly joined the major winner’s circle, but he stepped out, finally, from Spieth’s shadow, too. A month later, Thomas won the Dell Technologies Championship, the second leg of the four-event Fed Ex series. He began the season by bursting out of the blocks, winning three of his first six tournaments. Now, he is finishing it strongly.

“You start looking at the depth of the years, and how they compare,” said Spieth in reference of the player of the year award, which is voted by fellow pros. “Justin, where he’s at right now, it’s harder for anybody to beat him in my mind. But I could make it difficult.”

It will be difficult to do that. For Thomas, a thoroughbred year has one final furlong to go. No doubt, winning the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup represents the priority, but being named player of the year would be a nice byproduct of his late-season boon.

He deserves the award, but so did Johnson last year and Rory McIlroy the year before. Neither went on to clinch the FedEx Cup.

Do that this week, and Thomas will definitely end an already stellar year as its undisputed standout player.