In Thursday’s battle of the past, present and future of golf, Justin Thomas, the future, won

August 9, 2018

ST. LOUIS — Golf’s past, present and future convened at 8:23 on Thursday morning for the most glamorous tee time of the first round of the 100th PGA Championship. As tends to happen, the future won out. The defending champ, Justin Thomas, 25, shot the low round of the group, a one-under 69 that extends his reign as golf’s hottest player.

From this point forward, which contemporary player will win the most major championships? It’s hard not to say Thomas is the future of the sport, with his stellar all-around game and palpable hunger for big, glittering trophies. On Thursday, Thomas made a statement by birdieing three of his first five holes – the round began on No. 10 – and though he wobbled down the stretch he walked off the course in a tie for 18th place, in striking distance for a victory that will send him to the top of the World Ranking.

“Definitely a lot more positives to take than negatives,” Thomas said, “and I’m in a good position.”

Playing alongside the new boy king was Rory McIlroy, 29, who once sat astride the throne. McIlroy’s career has been defined by the PGA Championship: his eight-shot blowout in 2012 announced him as a player for the ages, and his gritty win in ’14 was pure alpha male dominance, as he stared down Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler in a Sunday dogfight. At fifth in the World Ranking, McIlroy remains relevant, at least theoretically. But he has been badly overshadowed by the rise of Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and now Thomas.

justin thomas tiger woods
Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas walk on the 8th hole during the first round of the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club.

It’s been four long years since McIlroy’s last major championship victory, and in the years since he has been diminished by injuries, putting problems and various off-course distractions. He skulked into Bellerive with his tail between his legs, having been dominated by Thomas last Sunday at the WGC at Firestone, the latest example of McIlroy’s submissiveness in a big moment. On Thursday, Rory gamely tried to keep up with Thomas with a pair of early birdies, but his round and demeanor went flat after that, as he parred his final nine holes for an even-par 70. Afterward McIlroy couldn’t even fake enthusiasm; asked to recount his best shot of the day, he said, “I don’t think I had one. I don’t know. They were all OK.”

And then there was Tiger Woods, the living legend who has won four PGA Championships, including in 2006 and 2007 when he became the last man to go back-to-back. At 42, with a fused spine, he is desperately trying to reenter the conversation, but Woods had never looked more like yesterday’s news than over the his first two holes, in which a series of awful shots left him three over par. Woods’s reconstituted swing remains a work in progress, his putting stroke and confidence come and go, but his iron will remains. He battled back ferociously, playing his final 10 holes in three under to match McIlroy’s 70, though the amount of energy an already-fatigued Woods had to expend will be unsustainable for three more rounds.

“I was able to grind out a score today,” Woods said. “It kept me in the golf tournament.”

So what’s the bottom line on the most-watched group of day one? Badly needing a spark, Rory played indifferently. Tiger’s bounceback was impressive but serious holes remain in his game. Thomas, meanwhile, made enough bad swings to ruin a round, but he has so much momentum right now he couldn’t help but post a red number. This big three will be back at it again on Friday afternoon and, based on the huge crowd that turned out for Thursday’s early tee time, all eyes will once again be on a trio of past champions all going in different directions.

“It was pretty cool to be out there 8:30 in the morning and have an atmosphere like that,” McIlroy said. “J.T. and I were saying it’s going to get a little crazy tomorrow afternoon. So we’re looking forward to that.”