PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Armed with an Eskimo Joe’s cooler in his left hand, Rickie Fowler waited behind PGA National’s 18th green for a karmic celebration.
About an hour earlier, Fowler hit the road with girlfriend Allison Stokke and drove an exit south on the Turnpike. It was nearly the identical, 25-minute drive that Thomas made last year, when he missed the cut at the Honda Classic but returned in time to congratulate Fowler.
Now, it was Fowler’s turn to return the favor, after Thomas prevailed in a playoff over Luke List.
“It’s cool to be able to do this for each other,” Fowler said. “He’s playing all right. It’s been a good little stretch for the last two years.”
A good little stretch, indeed – this was Thomas’ seventh victory in his last 31 starts. That torrid stretch has not only vaulted him to the top of the list of Masters favorites – again – but into the PGA Tour record books, becoming just the third player in the past 30 years with eight Tour titles before the age of 25.
Asked if he believes he’s playing better than last season, Thomas replied: “Yeah, I do. I feel very confident in pretty much every part of my game right now. I feel like my game is in a very good spot at the moment.”
After that five-win season, Thomas consulted his peers (including pal Jordan Spieth) on how to manage expectations for the following year, how to avoid suffering a letdown.
Thomas kept rolling last fall with a win in Korea, but this spring he admitted to feeling some stress, rattling off three consecutive top-20s but coming undone with a poor stretch of holes each weekend.
“This definitely takes the pressure off me,” said Thomas, who leapfrogged Spieth to become the third-ranked player in the world.
“I’ve been happy with how consistent I’ve been, but without any wins, I’m constantly being reminded. It’s nice to get it a little bit off my back.”
Thomas has built his reputation on being a birdie machine and one of the Tour’s most explosive players, his awesome power belying his bite-sized frame. But these past six months have proved he’s not all flash. To win the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, he conquered one of the most difficult closing stretches in golf. To win the CJ Cup in Korea, he fought through exhaustion to knock off a red-hot Marc Leishman.
And then there was the test this week at PGA National, annually ranked as one of the most difficult regular-season stops on Tour. All week players contended with gusty winds that brought the Champion Course’s myriad hazards into play, and with sand-filled greens that made chipping and putting a guessing game.
Thomas ranks 125th on Tour in driving accuracy, but he never took a penalty stroke this week.
“He just didn’t make any mistakes,” said his father/swing coach, Mike Thomas. “Out here there’s a triple behind every swing. He just didn’t make that mistake.”
But conservative play wasn’t what won him this title. Thomas stuffed a wedge on 13 for birdie. He went flag-hunting again on 16. And after laying up on 18 following a drive into the right rough, he stiffed a 117-yard gap wedge that was enough to force a playoff with List.
On the first extra hole, List went right off the tee and then left with his approach, up against the grandstand. Even with his opponent out of position, Thomas didn’t change his plans. He grabbed 5-wood, needing 239 yards to cover the front and 259 to the flag.
It was getting so dark that Thomas couldn’t follow his ball in the air, so he looked at the pond fronting the green, waiting to see if there was a splash.
“I knew as long as I didn’t completely whiff it, I was going to get it over the water where I was looking,” he said.
His shot landed on the green and rolled out to 40 feet, setting up a two-putt birdie for the victory.
“You can’t really play defensive,” Fowler said. “I know JT isn’t scared to win. He was taking the chance. Sometimes you’ve got to take the chance of securing the win for yourself. The wins out here, they’re not given to you. You’ve got to earn them, and JT has earned quite a few over the past 18 months.”
The party Sunday night at The Woods Jupiter won’t get too rowdy – both Thomas and Fowler are playing in the Seminole Pro-Member on Monday morning, followed by a 2 p.m. flight to Mexico for next week’s World Golf Championships event.
“We’ll celebrate a little,” Fowler said. “It’s obviously a satisfying win for him. I know how it feels.”
Tucked in Fowler’s cooler was a special bottle of beer, but neither player would divulge the details of their inside joke.
“Maybe we can keep this little thing going,” Fowler said. “I just need him to miss the cut next year.”
The way Thomas has been rolling, Fowler shouldn’t count on it.