ERIN, WISCONSIN – For speed freaks, the fascination lies in how fast can you go.
For mountain climbers, it’s Everest. For deep divers, it’s how long can they hold their breath.
For golfers, it’s how low can you go.
And no one goes lower than Justin Thomas.
Consider what he’d already done this year before he did what had never been done in 117 U.S. Opens on Saturday:
Thomas shot 59 at the Sony Open in Hawaii; he tacked on a second-round 64 to set the all-time PGA Tour 36-hole scoring record. A third-round 65 gave him a share of the all-time 54-hole record and his winning 253 total in Honolulu is the new gold scoring standard on the PGA Tour.
He collects scoring records the way the younger generation collects tattoos. Thomas even won two golf tournaments in one day as a youngster and said, “There’s no record book for that but I’m pretty proud of that one.”
On a mostly cloudy Saturday at Erin Hills, where a third round of overnight rain had soaked the remaining fire out of the U.S. Open layout, Thomas became the first player in championship history to shoot 9-under par in one round. Four other players – Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Vijay Singh and, most famously, Johnny Miller – had shot 63 in the U.S. Open before Thomas did it at Erin Hills.
None of those rounds, however, added up to 9-under par and it put Thomas in the final Sunday pairing with leader Brian Harman, who leads him by one stroke.
“That’s a special round of golf,” said Rickie Fowler, who is sharing a house with Thomas this week and sits just two off the lead.
Gaudy low numbers are not supposed to happen in U.S. Opens but this is a different U.S. Open. As Thomas said, give players soft greens and very little wind and stand back. That’s what’s happening at Erin Hills, which could have some of its bite back Sunday when the wind is forecast to pick up and blow from a different direction.
If that happens, maybe there’s some backing up. Otherwise, this could be a full sprint to the finish that should favor Thomas because he loves to play with his foot on the accelerator.
“When I get going, I don’t fear like I used to of kind of stalling,” Thomas said. “I’m like, let’s get to 8 (under), let’s get to 9.”
Sunday will be different for Thomas because it will be his best chance to win his first major championship. No player among the top 16 has won a major championship.
Thomas is a classically modern player, averaging 305 yards off the tee on the PGA Tour and 316 yards this week despite being 5 feet 10 and weighing 145 pounds. He almost literally comes off the ground when he hits his driver but he came up understanding the modern equation of bomb and gouge. Throw in his ability to shape shots when necessary and a putting stroke that can get white hot and his collection of scoring records begins to make sense.
Patrick Reed had signed for 65 on Saturday while Thomas was on Erin Hills’ closing stretch. Thomas finished his day by making four consecutive 3s and felt like he left one out there when he missed a makeable eagle putt on the par-4 15th hole. “I yipped that one down there so that ruined that,” Thomas said.
In his post-round press conference Thomas said at one point he never considered 63 until he had an eagle putt for the record on the 18th green. But he admitted that the notion of 62 – not yet done in a major championship – crossed his mind before his first putt at No. 15.
If you’re wondering why the scores are so low at Erin Hills, here’s one reason:
The par-5 18th hole measured 667 yards on Saturday and Thomas found himself debating whether to hit a high, soft, cutting 3-wood or roast a drawing 2-iron that could catch the slope short of the green and run onto the putting surface.
Thomas went with the 3-wood, figuring the worst that might happen was he’d miss the green to the right, where he would have a fairly routine up-and-down opportunity. No worries. Thomas pulled off the best shot of a brilliant day, leaving himself 8 feet for history, a putt he buried. (See video below)
“That was pretty sweet,” Thomas said.
Sweet and low.
— Global Golf Post (@GlobalGolfPost) June 17, 2017