Justin Thomas became golf’s new number one on Sunday, ending fellow American Dustin Johnson’s 64-week reign atop the world rankings.
The Kentucky man finished T11 at the Players Championship at Sawgrass and with Johnson’s T17 finish, it was enough for the 25-year-old to leapfrog him and become the seventh American in history to reach the pinnacle of the rankings.
Thomas may not be a household name like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIroy or Johnson, but his rise to domination is no surprise.
His trajectory as an amateur always pointed to this, winning the Haskins Award – accolade for the most outstanding collegiate golfer – as a freshman at 19 and central to Alabama’s national championship win in 2013. His talent was always comparable to best friend Spieth, but the Texan’s breakthrough came quicker with three major wins by just 23.
But for all the slow signs of progress on the world stage, Thomas finally rose to prominence after chalking his first win at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia in 2015. He maintained his level of consistency and class and jumped from 33rd to third in the rankings over a 15-month period from September 2016 to December 2017.
He did drop to third at the start of this year but victory at the Honda Classic followed by a runners-up finish at the WGC-Mexico Championship moved him to second.
In 38 tournaments since September 2016, Thomas has won seven times, including a FedEX Cup play-off win and his first major at the PGA Championship in August 2017, where he joined the likes of Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and McIlroy as the youngest winners at 23. Illustrious company to be in for a rising star of the game.
While Woods has inspired a generation of stars including Spieth and McIlroy, it’s Thomas who has emerged as the influential figure of that group this year and is showing no signs of slowing down.
In the 2017-18 season, Thomas has two victories and five top-10 finishes in 13 starts (with his worst finish a T22 at the Tour of Champions in January), and leads the tour’s FedEx Cup points standings.
With 1,874 points, defending champion Thomas holds a 341-point advantage over Jason Day, with Tiger Woods being the only other player to secure back-to-back FedEX Cups.
He can drive the ball an average of 312 yards, has swagger, confidence, big power game, clutch putting gene and plenty of time to shine.
If he could improve anything it would be driving accuracy – he is 144th this season at 57.74 per cent – but given he unleashes it so far down the fairway, he’s usually able to make the greens anyway (green in regulation is 69.44 per cent at 22nd).
Other areas where he excels on the PGA Tour list are in score average (69.314), eagles (72.0) and birdies (4.48) where he is ranked second, fourth and fifth respectively.
In terms of missed cuts, he has only missed the cut once in 25 tournaments, something that underlines the consistency in his short and long game and his sparkling putting ability.
Johnson’s reign at No1 may have been the longest since Woods in 2010, but for the long term, Thomas’ status at the top is not assured with World No2 Spieth breathing down his neck and set to compete in two events before he plays next.
Thomas plans to return to action at the Memorial in Ohio on May 28 with the biggest challenge being how he backs up his position as the best player in the game.
Incredibly, McIlroy, Day and Spieth didn’t last more than two weeks at No1 the first time they achieved the feat.
It will be interesting to see how Thomas controls the pressure that world No1 brings and the criticism when things go wrong, but based on how he carries himself around the course, he is a composed figure with a quality game and steely confidence.
With the depth of talent coming through in the sport, he will need to win a few more competitions to stay ahead of Spieth and Jon Rahm but for any promising prospect, there’s nothing like a real pressure test to elevate them to one of the game’s greats.
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