In the big moments at Quail Hollow, Thomas delivered. Or to put it another way, he did what friend and fellow American Spieth typically does.
Justin Thomas joins Jordan Spieth and golf's band of brothers with US PGA Championship title win
It was roles reversed, three weeks removed for friends dating back more than a decade.
Jordan Spieth had concluded his final round at the US PGA Championship a couple of hours earlier on Sunday, but having swapped his competitive garb for something a little more casual, the American stood alongside the 18th green at Quail Hollow, holding a front-row seat to Justin Thomas breaking down the major barrier. Spieth might have three in the bag already, but the admiration and affection was genuine.
“That was awesome,” he enthused, embracing Thomas after the latter rolled in a putt for a final-round 68 and an 8-under-par total. It was enough to win the tournament by two shots, a first major title secure.
Spieth was merely returning the favour. Thomas was there last month, just off the 18th green on Sunday at the British Open, as Spieth concluded a momentous five-hole stretch around Royal Birkdale to claim a first Claret Jug.
Thomas had missed the cut - his third on the bounce - but hung around to witness his buddy cement his place among golf’s greats. Hardly surprising, then, that he refers to Spieth as “Boy Wonder”.
However, at Quail Hollow Thomas played more than the dutiful sidekick. Another member of that all-star Class of 2011, he took the lead role in the season’s final major, displaying not only his immense talent, but an increasingly impressive temperament, too.
And that was just it: Thomas has long been known as a golfer of considerable capacity. Sunday’s performance simply proved he has developed the maturity and the mettle to prove that when it matters most.
How else could you explain the bounce-back from bogey on the first hole, when he promptly birdied the next? Or the sizeable putt holed on nine, when he appeared set to make the turn two off the lead? Or the chip-in four holes later, when Thomas had just glanced at the leaderboard and saw, to his great surprise, that a five-way tie at the top had unfolded?
Or, most crucially, the tee-shot on 17, the nerve-shredding, 221-yard, par-3 with water along its left and a “brutal” Sunday pin position, when he held a one-shot advantage with two to play? Thomas thrashed the ball to 15 foot – “probably one of the best golf shots I've ever hit” – and sank the putt.
In the big moments, he delivered. Or to put it another way, he did what Spieth typically does.
“Congrats JT,” Tiger Woods tweeted, “Way to rise above the carnage and out-execute everyone on that back nine.”
Thomas needed that to rise above Spieth, however temporarily. It is unfair to say he has lived in Spieth's shadow since they both joined the professional ranks, given Thomas had four wins already on his CV and three this season alone. He shot a 59 at the Sony Open in January and a 63 in the third round of June’s US Open.
But having held his own through junior golf and at competing colleges, Spieth had bounded out in front, with 11 PGA Tour victories and, here is the rub, a trio of majors. Watching on from inside an admittedly friendly rivalry, it was sure to be frustrating and naturally engendered some jealousy. A healthy jealousy. Ultimately, it brought out the best in Thomas.
Also from John McAuley:
“Jordan at the British made me more hungry,” he said on Sunday. "Frustration probably isn't the right word. Jealousy definitely is. I wanted to be doing that, and I wasn't."
Now he is. Considering what he has achieved in such a short space of time, at such a young age, Spieth has changed the parameters. Even McIlroy before him. But just like Spieth, Thomas is only 24, now with five professional wins and a first major crown. Some feat.
“The first of many," said his granddad Paul, a former PGA professional, by phone following Thomas's run around Quail Hollow. “You’re something else.”
Paternal bias aside, Thomas most certainly is. Granted, something other than Spieth, something other than McIlroy. That is all part of the appeal. With the win at the PGA Championship, Thomas has nudged alongside the bulging band of brothers at golf's summit and the game is in a great place for it.
As Rickie Fowler, another friend and another guy waiting on 18 to offer his congratulations, said: “It’s fun to see… it motivates you to push yourself to another level.”