CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s hot out. And how do we know, outside of the developing sunburn and continuous sweat drip? The volunteer on the 15th tee corrects you when you say it’s “warm.” “This morning was warm,” he says. “This? This is hot.”
Good to know. The buddies apparently do. The week is just starting here at stately Quail Hollow so Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, who have just been joined by golf’s latest winner, Max Homa, aren’t going to play 18 today. Or 16 or 17. Or really not even all of 15. Which actually used to be the old No. 18, but in advance of this week’s Presidents Cup, 16, 17 and 18 — the Green Mile, they call it — have been rerouted as 13, 14 and 15 in hopes of drama in this match-play event, and that’s what we have brewing on the new 15/old 18 green.
Zach Johnson, next year’s U.S. Ryder Cup captain and a Presidents Cup assistant this year, starts things off. He appears to be an expert at this game and is trying to bait his young troops to join. With bravado, Johnson walks about 40 feet, stops abruptly and drops his ball near the hole — and screams. You get the game now. Johnson’s eyes were closed. And he believed he could pace the distance blind. Homa, Homa’s caddie, Joe Greiner, and Thomas are sold and want in. And they miss. It isn’t easy.
But let’s go bigger! So in a semi-circle in front of the green, from another 40 feet away, Johnson, Thomas, Spieth, Homa, Greiner and Thomas’ dad, Mike, go at it. Together. Bodies almost collide. No ball hits the hole. It’s fun. It’s odd. It’s not over. We need a winner. So the game changes.
The concept here is more recognizable, but no less difficult. Toss the ball from about 30 feet. In, and you win. The Thomases, son and father, miss. Homa and Greiner miss. Johnson misses. Spieth drips his into the left side of the cup. And he collects. Thomas yells out that he’s glad he didn’t play for what Johnson “wanted to.”
But we’re curious. What was on the line, Mike?
“Jordan did well,” he tells you as he walks to the parking lot. “He made four figures.”
How best do you encapsulate the friendly, nearly brotherly, vibe between Spieth and Thomas, who will help lead Team USA against the Internationals starting Thursday. It’s a whole lot of this. And a joke about a fan rope. [You may already know who’s involved.] And golf. And some football watching. No fans were here on Presidents Cup Day 1, so this was a chance for them to be them.
Let’s tag along.
Practice rounds are a bit loose today — Homa, in fact, was in California as of early Sunday night East Coast time — so we catch Thomas and Spieth here. On the golf side of things, they hit multiple tee shots. And multiple second shots. And putts, chips and pitches, from all kinds of angles. Mike Thomas, from behind, watches nearly every shot. Johnson is driving in a cart with his name on it; he’s likely been assigned to this duo by captain Davis Love III, and they will very likely be Johnson’s stars next year at the Ryder Cup in Rome.
JT hops on the cart as they speed up 3 fairway.
“Playing speed golf is great,” he says.
Hole 4 and 7
They play 4, which Spieth and Thomas believe has a different tee from when the Wells Fargo Championship is played here, then skip over to 7. After the tee shots, Johnson talks to Mike Thomas about the weather at a previous event.
On a short pitch shot to 7 green, Spieth hits a brick embankment ahead of the green, and it caroms into the water. He screams. A volunteer then pulls up in a cart. He’s a golf fan, and he can’t believe it’s just the world’s seventh-ranked golfer, the world’s 13th-ranked golfer and, well, him and you.
“It’s surreal,” he says.
On the green, Johnson is going over some sort of analytics. “We’re the 95th percentile,” Spieth shouts to Thomas.
Hole 7-8 rope
To the left of 7 green is the 8 tee. And between the two is a rope that will divide the players from the viewing folks this week. But on Monday, it’s a prop.
As they walk up, Thomas, Spieth and Johnson are all talking about another rope. And Bryson DeChambeau. And how DeChambeau, on Sunday during the LIV Golf event in Chicago, was clotheslined by that rope after hitting a shot. They had all seen it. You probably have, too. Anyway, one of the members of the party comes to the Quail Hollow rope, hits it, drops to a knee and rolls about 5 feet backward.
Everyone is dying.
Thomas hits one tee shot, then wants to hit a second as the gang steps ahead. He shouts at Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, that he’s about to hit, Greller moves one — one — step to the right, is good and Thomas hits a left-to-righter over his head. You probably don’t do this in your Monday games.
Up ahead, to the left of the fairway, the groundscrew is taking it all in.
“It’s kind of chill today,” one worker says.
On 9 tee, Mackay imitates a swing and points out to the trees on the left. On 9 fairway, Spieth grabs his cellphone from the cart and makes a call, and Thomas is watching something on his phone and doubling over. On the green, Mike Thomas is talking to Johnson, and in the background, three workers are coordinating a video board, while watching ESPN’s highlights of Sunday’s NFL games. There’ll be more NFL in a sec.
On 10 tee — which if you have the means this week, try to get to the viewing area above the tee box — Johnson opens up the cooler from the back of his cart and pulls out a baggie that holds snack bars, a Snickers bar and, according to him, a “PB and J.” He tosses Thomas one of the snack bars.
Holes 11 and 12
On 11, Thomas and Spieth each hit thrice off the tee. On 12 tee, you have three options on the dogleg left — play it straight, try to pop it over trees that are on the left, or hook one lowish around the trees. Thomas tries the latter two.
It’s here you may start to wonder what the feeling is like here, of being buddies and playing buddy golf while, you know, also trying to win an international team event, so you ask someone in the know. Mike Thomas is also his son’s coach, and he had a thought on it all.
“I mean, they always have a game,” he says. “They’re always going to have a game just to keep their interest. Get more done without the fans. The fans are great, but to have a day without fans, you kind of focus on what you’re doing and not have to turn down autographs and pictures and things like that. It was nice. A lot of these guys have seen this golf course multiple times so it was just getting back out there and getting a feel for it.”
Shh…Johnson has pulled up his cart to the tee box. The tires must be soft. On the cart of Fred Couples, another assistant captain, Homa pulls up as Thomas and Spieth are putting.
It’s here, on new 14/old 17, where Thomas clinched the 2017 PGA for his first major championship. On Monday, the video board is showing Packers-Bears highlights. Spieth is mesmerized, though he’s a Cowboys fan. Mike Thomas comes up and congratulates Homa on his win. Walking off the tee, Couples watches 49ers highlights, sees Jimmy Garappolo run for a score and shakes his fist. San Fran fans may have had different feelings.
On the green, the games are played, and Thomas tells Johnson and his dad that he wants to go to the range to hit “10 balls.” And all of the parties go their own ways.
But we’ll end things this way. The day was lighthearted, and this moment was touching.
Spieth had hit a fairway bunker shot, and Greller was meticulously raking the sand. A woman walked up to within about 10 yards to his right and softly said: “I’m glad you’re here.”