AUGUSTA, Ga. – In the unscientific realms of casual conversation and mainstream media coverage, we hear that the favorites to win the 2018 Masters are Tiger, Phil, Rory, Rickie, Bubba, DJ, Tiger, Jordan, Paul Casey, Rose, Tiger, Phil, Sergio, Jon Rahm, Bryson, Phil and Tiger.
That list is missing something: the guy who might be the world’s best golfer.
In another year, Justin Thomas might be favored to win the Masters. This year, he may not even be the favored Justin, considering Rose almost won at Augusta National last year and is a popular pick for those seeking a relative sleeper.
Let’s offer a reminder of who Justin Thomas is.
At 24, he is the reigning PGA Tour player of the year. He won the last major and last year’s FedEx Cup, while winning five times on tour in 2017. He shot a 59, and a record-setting 63 in the first round of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, and has won twice this year.
It’s not accurate to summon the cliché “Nobody is talking about …” when referring to Thomas. He’s not invisible or irrelevant in the leadup to the Masters, which begins Thursday morning. He’s just not receiving the treatment usually lavished upon The Next Big Thing, Maybe because of Tiger, Phil and the most exciting Masters field in memory.
“I’ll trust whatever Vegas says,” Thomas said when asked if he should be considered a favorite. “They’re pretty good.”
That glibness shouldn’t obscure his ambition. He’s second in the world golf rankings, behind Dustin Johnson. How badly does he want to take the lead?
“It’s very important to me,” he said. “It’s a huge goal of mine. But at the end of the day, if I just continue to play well and continue to be in contention to win tournaments, it’s something I feel is going to take care of itself. And that’s what I was a little upset with myself about, that I kind of got wrapped up in it last week, because I was playing my match to become No. 1 in the world instead of playing my match to have a chance to win the tournament. That’s very immature of me.”
He lost to Bubba Watson in the semifinals of the WGC-Dell Match Play event, while resurrecting a word he has described himself as before: immature.
As a junior golfer, he threw fits on the course, and at 24 he is remains chronologically close to, if emotionally removed from, those days.
“I was a fiery kid and I’m still the same fiery person, but I was just a lot more immature then, so I looked like an idiot out there,” he said.
Now he looks like ... a kid. He’s 5-10 and not much wider than a graphite shaft, yet has the power and trajectory to attack Augusta National’s longest holes. This season he ranks eighth on the PGA Tour in driving distance, sixth in birdies, second in greens in regulation, first in earnings and just 209th in putting.
He is in many ways the opposite of his friend Jordan Spieth. Spieth relies on finesse and putting. Thomas hits majestic shots and hopes his putter warms to the task.
Spieth won the Masters at 21 in part because of his obsessive study of the fast, sloping greens and his consultations with master putter Ben Crenshaw.
Thomas has relied on conversations with Jack Nicklaus and observations of Tiger Woods, who, he said, has stopped offering tips now that Woods is again trying to win the tournament.
“It’s a little harder to get stuff out of him than when he was hurt and I was asking him questions,” Thomas said.
Woods clearly sees Thomas as a threat. That alone makes Thomas one of the favorites, along with Tiger, Phil, Rory, Dustin, Tiger, Rickie and the other Justin.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com.
On Twitter: @SouhanStrib