SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) Jordan Spieth let out a very large ”Whooooooo” after watching the 20-foot putt hit the bottom of the cup.
Sunday on the 18th green at the PGA Championship? Not quite.
But still very satisfying. And it wasn’t even Spieth’s putt.
Rather, it was rookie Justin Thomas making the long twister on No. 16 at Whistling Straits to give himself and Spieth a 2-up lead over Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler in their Tuesday best-ball match. Mickelson has been setting up these practice-round games – just for fun and a bit of cash – for years.
”It feels good for everyone,” Spieth said. ”That’s why Phil gets them together.”
Two-down with two holes to go, Mickelson and Fowler pressed Spieth and Thomas on the 17th tee box, setting up a new bet that covered only the last two holes. Mickelson responded by hitting his tee shot pin high, to 8 feet, on the 223-yard par 3, then making the putt for birdie to win the hole.
That set up some drama on 18, when Fowler drained a 20-foot birdie putt, forcing Spieth to knock one in from about 5 feet to halve the whole, keep the lead in the overall game and end up even in the betting.
Which, of course, is what really counts on days like this.
”You don’t want to lose and have to hand those guys whatever you play for,” said Spieth, who goes for his third major of the season when the `real’ golf starts Thursday. ”There’s a little bit of nerves strictly because of bragging rights. And also because it means something.”
Nobody reveals the stakes. Suffice to say it’s not a $2 Nassau. The combined career earnings of the four players is more than $135 million.
Thomas, a 22-year-old tour rookie making his second appearance in a major, has won only $2 million of that. His entry into this game is another longstanding tradition of Mickelson’s. In addition to getting sharp for the grinding week ahead, Mickelson sets up these games to give the young players the taste of pressure – and, specifically, pressure in a team game, the likes of which they play every year on the U.S. side in the Presidents or Ryder Cups.
”If I go out and play on a Tuesday, I don’t get much out of it,” Thomas said. ”You lose focus. You kind of hit shots that don’t mean anything. Every shot means something on a day like today. The nerves can get going.”
Anticipating the showdown with Mickelson, Spieth suggested last week that he might bring the U.S. Open trophy he won at Chambers Bay and place it on every green. It’s the only major trophy Lefty has yet to win. ”It’s the first time I have something on him,” Spieth said.
But it never came to that.
Less is more, Spieth said, when going against Mickelson, a Grade A trash talker who once made copies of the $100 bills he won off Tiger Woods, drew smiley faces on them and placed them in Woods’ locker, along with a note telling Tiger the Benjamins were very happy in their new home.
”He doesn’t like it if you’re quiet,” Spieth said about Mickelson. ”If you give it back to him, that’s when he knows it’s bothering you.”
And so, after Thomas made the 20 footer on 16 to go 2 up with two to go, he passed Fowler and gave him a nice slap on the butt. That, along with Spieth’s shout, were the winning team’s most outward displays of emotion.
With money still on the line on the 18th green, Fowler made his long putt, then high-fived and shared a Ryder Cup-esque hug with Mickelson. Then, they stood almost directly behind Spieth as he lined up a fairly simple 5-footer to ensure he and Thomas would break even.
Spieth made it. Never a doubt.
”Me making (my) putt was to save some money,” Fowler said. ”And it was nice to walk away with that.”
After his final make, Spieth simply offered a meek bow toward Mickelson, who brought him into these games a few years back.
The four posed on the green for some pictures. A friendly close to a bloodless, but still-entertaining day.
”It was a great match,” Spieth said. ”We had a good time with it. And we kept Phil quiet most of the day.”