Ten years ago, a 14-year-old boy and a 13-year-old boy stood together on a French golf course, sporting matching red Ralph Lauren polos that were too big for their frames and floppy hair that could have benefited from a trim. They were playing in their first tournament together, both thousands of miles from home, on an unfamiliar course, competing against unfamiliar opponents.
Those boys were Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, who, along with Erynn Lee and Grace Na, were chosen in 2007 to represent the United States at the inaugural Evian Masters Juniors Cup, a 14-and-under mixed international tournament now held annually in France. The foursome finished third in the event behind Japan and Spain, with Thomas individually taking second in the boys’ division and third overall. Seven years later, with a PGA Tour card in hand and one professional win under his belt, Spieth reflected on his experience in France, and that first meeting with Thomas, in a promotional video for the 2014 edition of the tournament.
“Get to know all these juniors that you’re meeting this week. Stay in touch with them. You’re gonna see them pretty soon, a few years later, hopefully on tour,” Spieth advised the 2014 tournament participants. “That’s just the way it was. I mean, Justin Thomas, who was my teammate, is one of my best friends now, and he was the one who traveled over with me when we were that young.”
And so, in 2007, the legend began: that of the friendship between Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, now both 24, and both trying to win the FedEx Cup trophy this weekend. They currently sit at no. 1 and 2 in the standings, respectively, and each controls his own destiny; should either win the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, he will take home the Cup. Spieth won this tournament two years ago and claimed the FedEx title during his winningest year on tour (five victories, including the Masters and U.S. Open), but Thomas has never been this close to the top. He’s never had a year even close to this good. His season has included:
- A round of 59 at the Sony Open (becoming the youngest player to shoot under 60)
- A 63 in the third round of the U.S. Open
- Five tour victories, including his first major win at the PGA Championship (that joined him with Tiger Woods and Spieth as the only players in the past 50 years to win five tournaments, with a major, in a season before the age of 25)
- A virtual lock to be awarded the PGA’s Player of the Year award
No one’s had a year like this since … well, since Spieth’s 2015. And, though 2017 has largely belonged to Thomas, Spieth is still ahead of him in the standings by 340 points.
Spieth won three tournaments this year, finished second at three others, and seemed to regain the composure that he’d infamously lost at Augusta National a year and a half ago. Now, after taking the Open Championship this year—in wild, near-catastrophic fashion—Spieth is not only back on top of his game, but golf in general.
Going into this year’s Open, golf felt ripe for the taking. Between the 2010 U.S. Open and the 2017 Open Championship, 20 of 29 major winners were first-time victors, including the last seven in a row—the second-longest streak of its kind since 1934—before Spieth ended that stretch in July. Thomas was also a first-timer when he won the PGA in August, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like it had been a long time coming.
People like to theorize about the friendship among Spieth, Thomas, and Rickie Fowler (and Natty Light spokesman Smylie Kaufman, though he tends to be overlooked) and how it affects the game. Are friendships good for golf or bad for golf? Or has golf, as an institution, never been as cutthroat as other sports? Sure, we didn’t see Tiger and Phil Mickelson chumming around after a tournament, and Dustin Johnson’s Instagram isn’t loaded with photos of him hanging out with other professionals, but, as ESPN’s Jason Sobel details, golfers being friendly and rooting for one another is a tradition that dates back, at minimum, 40 years. And the only reason we’re discussing the Spieth-Thomas connection at all is because these two players are so good.
Spieth has been winning tournaments since he became a pro, and before this year it seemed that Rickie Fowler was ready to join him and become the next Baker’s Bay Boy to separate himself. But Thomas stormed in and established his game, winning tournaments over competitive fields—including the PGA over Hideki Matsuyama, Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed, and Fowler—in impressive fashion. Spieth and Thomas showed their composure in rattling situations over the course of the year, and they won by relying on the skills they’ve honed over decades of playing golf—skills they’d been developing even before they met as teenagers.
After a 54-hole lead at the Open, Spieth had to overcome a disastrous 13th to stay within one shot of the leader, Matt Kuchar. Spieth held him off. In the final round of the PGA, Justin Thomas was tied with four other players at the top of the leaderboard on the back nine. By holding serve on 12, he took the outright lead and put everyone away with a chip-in birdie on 13 and another birdie on 17 to win by two strokes. And at both events, like in 2007, they were waiting for each other as they walked off the course. Thomas had a hug for Spieth at Royal Birkdale’s 18th green, and Spieth returned the favor with an ass slap at Quail Hollow.
Jordan Spieth sneaks in the congratulatory slap on the ass for Justin Thomas pic.twitter.com/GrnJn5gHRp— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) August 13, 2017
There are plenty of photographs and videos of Spieth and Thomas together now, from their post-major celebrations, to spring break Snapchats, to Claret Jug adventures. But one of their earliest photos together is perhaps the purest encapsulation of the two. The photo is from 2007, and it still hangs at the site of the Evian Championship. LPGA golfer Michelle Wie resurfaced it in 2015 when she was playing in France, and it provided plenty of Twitter fodder for fellow professionals, garnering responses from Steve Wheatcroft and Jason Dufner.
It’s goofy and amazing, and they look like babies. But they are there what they still are now: two friends who just love golf. And right now, they’re possibly the two best at it in the world.