Column: American core of golf stars have grown up together
By DOUG FERGUSON
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (AP) Justin Thomas lost a skin by making bogey. He won a bet by making par.
All on the same hole.
The difference - a big difference - was in the clubs Thomas used to cover the 472 yards on the 15th hole at Carnoustie. And that one hole during a British Open practice round Tuesday, with a little drama and a lot of laughs, captured the essence of this growing class of young American stars.
They've known each other since they were teenagers.
The fun hasn't left them, even as the trophies, fame and money keep piling up.
Patrick Cantlay, who shot 60 on the PGA Tour the summer after his freshman year at UCLA, won six skins from Thomas and Jordan Spieth with a routine par. Thomas was far more interested in a side bet with Michael Greller, who caddied for Thomas and then Spieth when they were amateurs, and left his job as a sixth-grade math teacher to work for Spieth when he turned pro.
The challenge was for Thomas to make par using only an 8-iron.
Once he got it in the fairway, Spieth came over to advise him how to navigate the pot bunkers more than 200 yards away. The ball stopped rolling, finally, about a yard short of a bunker to the left of the green. Getting it over the bunker with that club was going to be a problem.
"Where's my caddie?" Thomas said in mock panic.
Spieth was preparing to hit a bunker shot on the other side of the fairway when he looked over and said, "Sorry," then ran to Thomas for more consultation. He told Thomas to open the face of the 8-iron and slide it under the firm turf. Spieth pointed to a spot on the slope beyond the bunker. Greller watched nervously as Thomas pulled it off to perfection, the ball rolling out to 3 feet.
With the leading edge of the 8-iron, he knocked it in for a 4. And then, as usual, they all debated the size of the bet.
This stuff goes on all the time, involving any number of players.
Spieth spoke of the players who came out of the high school Class of 2011 who have gone on to star on the big stage. It includes Spieth and his three legs of the career Grand Slam, Thomas and his recent albeit brief rise to No. 1 in the world after winning the PGA Championship, Daniel Berger and his passion at the Presidents Cup and Xander Schauffele, the most recent PGA Tour rookie of the year.
There are others a few years older, such as two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, Masters champion Patrick Reed and Cantlay.
They faced one another across America as juniors and into college, and it hasn't really stopped.
"It's kind of a natural transition into kind of fearless golf at the highest level," Spieth said. "I think that's what you're seeing out of 20-something-year-olds. The game is getting athletic, but as far as the mental side of it, guys have just been playing against better fields on better golf courses because of the junior and amateur circuit."
Tiger Woods spends plenty of time around most of them, if not with Thomas, Berger and Rickie Fowler at home in Florida, then with Spieth during a practice round at the Shinnecock Hills. This is one area of the game to which Woods can't relate.
He turned pro and had two PGA Tour victories at age 20, a rarity in 1996. Players he grew up around in California, like Pat Perez and Chris Riley, took longer to get out of school and make it on tour. By then, Woods was a dominant figure in golf. His friends - Mark O'Meara, Fred Couples - were in their 40s.
"So yeah, you see these guys are really close, but they've been close since junior golf and made it out here on tour very quickly and almost the same time frame," Woods said. "So I think that's one of the reasons why you see them hanging around with each other all the time."
Koepka, Spieth, Thomas and Reed have combined to win the last five majors. All of them are Americans, all in their 20s.
There have been natural moments of jealously, but far more motivation.
"It is a very unique group of us, I guess you could say," Thomas said. "Obviously, we want to beat each other's brains in. I never want to lose to any of my friends, especially my best friends. Sometimes it's harder losing to your closest friends than it is someone you don't even know, whether it's bragging rights or whatever it is."
Six years ago, the U.S. had only three players in their 20s at the Ryder Cup. Two of them, Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley, were recent major champions. Now, six of the top eight players in the current Ryder Cup standings are still in their 20s, and four are major winners.
"There's no doubt about it and there's no other way to put it than they have an exceptional bunch of players at the moment," said Tommy Fleetwood of England. "It just so happens that it has been a run of American golfers that have won majors. But at the same time, they've generally been the best players in the world."
Updated July 17, 2018