Justin Thomas, one of the most successful members of this year’s rookie class on the PGA Tour, envisions a successful debut at the AT&T Byron Nelson based on feedback from Tuesday’s practice round.
Thomas adapted quickly enough to conditions at the Four Seasons Resort to grab the attention of longtime friend, playing partner and Masters champion Jordan Spieth.
“We had a little skins game. It was fun and I got the better hand, as usual, on Jordan,” said Thomas, one of several Nelson competitors staying at Spieth’s home in Dallas during tournament week.
Thomas, 22, and Spieth, 21, have traded good-natured barbs with one another during tournaments since their junior golf days. Thomas introduced Spieth to his caddie, Michael Greller, when Spieth was still an amateur.
But they will break fresh ground Thursday when Thomas joins Spieth and Brooks Koepka, 25, in a featured threesome at 1 p.m. on the first tee of the TPC Las Colinas course.
It will mark the first time for the friends to play in the same group at a PGA Tour event, and it will happen on a day when Spieth will be the focal point of hometown crowds eager to embrace him as the Masters champion.
“I don’t know who I made mad to get that pairing,” Thomas said, smiling. “It’s going to be pretty wild. It will be fun and probably the most people I’ve played in front of. That will be cool for me.”
Although designed as a showcase for Spieth, at least in the minds of Dallas-Fort Worth golf fans, Thursday’s featured grouping could just as easily turn into a career-building moment for Thomas (5-foot-10, 145 pounds).
A member of Alabama’s team that won the 2013 NCAA championship, Thomas ranks 77th in the world golf rankings and has collected five top-10 finishes at tour events this season.
He’s a strong contender for rookie of the year honors among tour players — an honor Spieth captured in 2013 — with $1,402,492 in 19 events. Thomas ranks 37th in earnings on the 2015 PGA Tour and trails only Daniel Berger ($1,645,568) among golfers who earned their tour cards based on their performance on the 2014 Web.com Tour.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll eventually be a multiple winner on tour, including some of those big ol’ tournaments,” Alabama golf coach Jay Seawell said in a phone interview. “He’s good about getting himself in the mix. And when he gets there, the big moment is not too big for him.”
Asked about the possibility of a victory this season, Seawell said: “If you’re asking me to bet, I’d bet he will win this year. But those guys are pretty good out there. You can play great all week and still finish second.”
Thomas said he “would love to win” his first tour event at the Nelson, but he has learned to embrace patience since leaving Alabama after his sophomore season in 2013. He cited Spieth’s meteoric rise this season — with four victories in professional events since November — as a motivator.
“I learned last year it doesn’t matter what level you’re at, it’s difficult to win,” said Thomas, who claimed one title in 20 tries on the 2014 Web.com Tour. “It needs to be your week. But you don’t know if it’s going to be this week or in Augusta or if it’s going to be next year.
“If I just keep putting myself there, at some point, I would think it’s going to happen.”
Without question, Thomas would enjoy claiming a title in Spieth’s homecoming event. The two regularly prank one another at tour events, with the highest-profile example coming at this year’s Phoenix Open.
Thomas parked his courtesy car in a spot reserved for the late-arriving Spieth, then sent Spieth a Snapchat photo of his car with the message: “This is what happens when you get into a tournament late. You have to compromise.”
Spieth responded by arranging for valet attendants to move Thomas’ car to a nearby lot but to make it seem like the vehicle had been towed to an impound lot. Several frantic texts from Thomas later, Spieth let his friend in on the ruse.
“He was in a panic attack for a few hours, so that was worth it,” Spieth told reporters at the time.
Might Spieth be in for payback this week from a house guest whose college coach described Thomas as “a practical joker who loves to stir the pot?” Thomas smiled Tuesday when asked about the possibility.
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” Thomas said. “If I do, I’m not telling you guys. He’s going to find out on his own.”
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
AT&T Byron Nelson
Thursday-Sunday, TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas
(Par 70, 7,166 yards), Irving
Purse: $7.1 million
Winner’s share: $1,278,000
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