The headline here should be, “Martin Laird takes a 3-shot lead in the Waste Management Phoenix Open.” But I just can’t seem to get Justin Thomas off my mind.
It was an exciting morning knowing that Thomas and fellow phenom and sponsor exemption, Daniel Berger were going to be in the last group with 3-time winner, Martin Laird, from Scottsdale by way of Scotland.
I hadn’t heard of Berger until he played his way into 2nd place and the media center on Friday. Turns out he knows Thomas very well from their amateur days. And I’ve been following Laird in recent years because a fellow Scot friend of mine knows him well enough to have played with him. And conveniently, as a group and through no fault of their own, they weren’t going to draw a huge crowd.
After Thomas’ birdie runs in the first two rounds, particularly on his front nine Friday with four in challenging conditions, I thought that with better weather, a smaller crowd and not as much pressure from a third round final group pairing, he could set off some fireworks again.
The mesmerizing thing about him is that he’s only 145 pounds and he hits the ball forever. It gives him the advantage of shorter approach shots and reachable par 5s. And he already told me that he’s worked very hard on his short game and putting. How can this guy not be a lock to be very successful on the big tour and soon?
One way would be to get stuck in neutral despite his talent as he did on Saturday. He just missed a couple of longer birdie putts and one short one on the par-5 3rd. He gets his first birdie at the 5th…and then gives it right back with a bogey on the 6th; even par on the front. And then, trying the “Tiger line” over the bunker in the dogleg right par-4 10th, he ends up going bunker to bunker and making a double bogey. It can happen that quickly.
Finally fortune turns for him on the par-5 13th: another thunderous drive, a towering iron just missing the green in the right mini-moguls and a stylish up and down from there. That broke the log jam and he went on to make all the birdies he should have at three of the best stages in golf: the island green at the par-5 15th, the asylum in the par-3 16th’s coliseum — where he egged them on after he did — and the sitting duck pin on the front left of the par-4 18th green, surrounded by thousands of his closest friends.
I have no idea if Thomas will make up the four shots he’s behind Laird tomorrow. I only know that he can, he’s fearless and that he’s hot right now. This is the guy who shot 61 in the second round in Hawaii and 63 in the second round at Humana. Must be something about second rounds.
I asked him about his string of four birdies he strung together Friday morning and he said that when he got to the back side, all he was trying to do was keep it going. That’s someone who plays out of possibility instead of problems and obstacles.
So Thomas is the one I’ll be watching on Sunday and for a long time to come if he keeps this up. Because I just can’t seem to get him off my mind.