PINEHURST, N.C. – Savannah Thompson is one lucky lady. Shortly after the 18-year-old recent high school grad from nearby Pinecrest High School arrived at Pinehurst No. 2 at 6 a.m., she drew No. 11 in a blind draw among volunteers. Lucky for her because that meant she would serve as standard-bearer for the 11th group of the day, which just so happened to mean a front-row pass to the best-ball match of Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler against Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.
“It’s like I’m so tired, but I don’t want this day to end,” said Thompson, who also has scored the standard–bearer job for the final group on Sunday, while walking down No. 13.
It’s a sentiment likely shared by Thomas, 20, a rookie on the Web.com Tour, who had to be pinching himself a little too. While playing on a sponsor invite at the Memorial, he asked Mickelson about playing a practice round in the near future. To which Mickelson replied that he’d reserve a spot for him in his Tuesday game if Thomas qualified for the U.S. Open.
Thomas took care of business by tying for medalist honors at the Columbus, Ohio, sectional qualifier and texted Mickelson. His reply? Bring a partner.
Choosing Spieth, 20, was a no-brainer for Thomas. When asked how long they have been friends, Thomas turned to Spieth and said, “When was France?”
That would be the 2008 Evian Masters Junior Cup, back when Thomas was 14 and Spieth on the verge of celebrating his 14th birthday as well. Just how young are these two young guns? Walking up the 17th hole, Mickelson, 43, recounted how he played his first U.S. Open in 1992 at Pebble Beach.
“I told him, ‘I wasn’t even alive then,’ ” Thomas said.
Spieth and Thomas showed no fear playing against a five-time major winner and Fowler, that 25-year-old “veteran.”
“It was no different than any other match I would play,” Thomas said, trying to downplay the gallery and media attention the high-profile practice-round game drew.
Stakes a little higher, he was asked? “Maybe a little bit,” Thomas admitted, but said he didn’t need to stop by the ATM on the way to the course.
It has been a rite of passage for the likes of Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson to play in Mickelson’s Tuesday money games, but Mickelson enjoys playing with the kiddie corps just as much.
“What it does for me is it allows me to see what’s coming up, and it pushes me to work harder,” Mickelson said.
It was a taxing day for Mickelson and Fowler, because the young guns opened up a 3-up lead at the turn – highlighted by a 40-foot bender that Spieth snaked in at the par-3 sixth hole.
“We would have been beating most anybody,” Thomas said of the hot start. “It just happened to be those two guys.”
To no surprise, Mickelson and Fowler didn’t go quietly. Mickelson, who switched to the claw putting grip in the final round of the FedEx St. Jude Classic and said he planned to use it this week at Pinehurst, trimmed the deficit with a 20-footer at the 12th and brushed in a 7-foot birdie at 13. Mickelson was in good spirits. In addition to briefly playing a harmonica for a Peter Jacobsen bit, Mickelson said he “crushed a 6-iron” at the 204-yard 15th hole and told Spieth and Thomas, “You want a 5.”
Spieth, who had dipped into Mickelson’s wallet with Steve Stricker as his partner at the Tour Championship last September, wasn’t taking the bait. “They don’t believe me,” Mickelson said loud enough for spectators to hear.
When Thomas missed a short one at the par 5, the match was all square with all the momentum squarely in the corner of the veterans. As they walked to the 17th tee, Mickelson said to Fowler, “Let’s make our best swings of the day right here.”
But it was Spieth who delivered the knockout punch, draining a 20-footer for birdie to win the hole before making a beeline to Thomas for a knuckles celebration.
“It was left-to-right about a foot and straightened out at the end,” Spieth said. “My partner was already in with par so I just had to hit it hard enough.”
When Mickelson’s birdie chip at 18 checked well short of the hole, it was all over. Youth had prevailed 1 up, or as Thomas proclaimed it, “Young guns, 1-0.”