By unofficial count it was a simple two-fist-bump beginning at the first tee Thursday. And a simple cool handshake on the 18th green. No secret fraternal shakes or bro-hugs. Not so much as a playful locker room-style towel snap.
Just two good buddies enjoying the ultimate golf outing, with $11 million or so on the line.
Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, friends since before their voices changed, were the final twosome on the first day of the Tour Championship. That’s the spotlight dance of this little cotillion.
The fact that the top two in FedEx Cup points are coincidentally best of friends is a nice little human element amid all the crass talk here about lottery-like FedEx Cup payoffs and the scramble for player-of-the-year honors.
Is there a cultural anthropologist in the house? For it is time to study just how this relationship might affect the larger picture of the competition. How will this dynamic play out should they come to the end Sunday both in range of a tournament win and a sultan’s bonus?
The clues they offered Thursday seemed to indicate that it would be a very close encounter between brothers of different mothers. They mirrored each other over Round 1, finishing with identical 3-under 67s. That left them most definitely in range of first-round leader Kyle Stanley (6 under) and the four players lined up behind him at 4 under.
While the specifics of their rounds varied slightly, Spieth and Thomas arrived at their scores by basically the same route.
“We were both on the grind a little bit,” Spieth said. “I thought he drove the ball really well, and he could have shot a phenomenal round.”
Thomas was better off the tee, hitting 11 of 14 fairways compared with Spieth’s nine of 14. Spieth was the more accomplished scrambler, and took 27 putts to Thomas’ 28.
“We just went on kind of streaks – streaks of good, and then we would kind of get a bad break on one. But yeah, we enjoy it very much, it's fun to play together.”
It wasn’t the prettiest or most efficient golf you’ve ever witnessed. They did not draw the very best out of each other. Not yet, anyway. But there’s time.
Oh, look, how cute is this: When Spieth missed his 20-foot putt for birdie on 18 and Thomas made his five-footer for bird, it kept the buddies perfectly aligned on the leaderboard and in position to be paired again Friday.
Why not just call the East Lake starter and make this a standing twosome through the weekend?
Every time these two are paired it is a chance to weigh the difference between golf and those other sports where we expect a certain edge between competitors. Too much hugging between opponents before tip-off or too much giggling at first base when the other guy reaches just feels wrong.
But, in golf, it’s a comparative picnic. It’s not like Spieth and Thomas were locking arms and skipping down the fairway to the music of Harry Nilsson (“People let me tell you ’bout my best friend.”). But there was a running friendly conversation between the two all day. Spieth even spun a story or two when there was time on the tee box – one that couldn’t be overheard on No. 5, but ended with Spieth happily gesturing and issuing a loud, “Huuuuuh!”
In this game, such cordial competition is applauded even.
Another Tour Championship player, Charley Hoffman, was just saying the other day how great it was to see Spieth, cap turned backwards, waiting around to hug it out with Thomas after he won this year’s PGA Championship. Just as Thomas, who missed the cut at the British Open, stayed the weekend to congratulate Spieth at the end of his victory there.
“It’s pretty cool to see in the game of golf,” Hoffman said. “That’s really what the game of golf is all about – camaraderie and playing together and having fun. It’s great to see these young kids display that.
“Kids watch us on TV and see (that) even though Jordan loses he goes and shakes Justin’s hand and says congratulations. That’s the way it should be done.”
Inside, Spieth said he would root passionately for his friend to miss a 6-footer if it meant beating him or at least getting into a playoff. Outwardly, the two of them are the unchanging picture of mutual support.
They go back more than a decade. Now both 24, they first competed against each other at the age of 13 in a junior all-star event in Texas. Spieth won by five strokes.
At 14, they were teammates on a U.S. junior team that competed in France.
In college, Spieth (Texas) took out Thomas (Alabama) on the way to a Longhorns championship.
More recently, at the playoff event two weeks ago in Boston, the two of them were tied with five holes to play. Thomas birdied 15 and then left Spieth behind by three shots.
Their annual vacation to the Bahamas in late spring with a group of young pros has become a Twitter staple.
There were some signs Thursday they may be growing just a bit weary of the whole besties story that is sure to follow them for the duration.
Asked if they had struck any kind of pact in advance of this tournament to go low and remain paired together throughout the four rounds, neither really seized on that half-serious suggestion.
“Yeah, that would be nice. We certainly would both enjoy that for sure,” Spieth said flatly.
“As long as it’s late,” Thomas said, meaning he’d be among the leaders, “I don’t care who I’m playing with.”
“We’re both doing our own thing out there,” Thomas added. “We’re not out there to entertain each other. So, it’s just a nice bonus sometimes between shots, but that’s about it.”
Why, at this pace, they’ll be positively sick of each other by Sunday.
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