On an episode of “The Haney Project” on Golf Channel in 2009, Charles Barkley visited Hank Haney’s house and the two of them started shooting pool. Haney squeaked out a win in the first game and in the second game, Barkley ran the table without allowing Haney a shot, looking like he had done that kind of thing before.
“It’s not personal,” Barkley said with a huge grin. “It’s just competition.”
When Justin Thomas came off the 18th green in the final round of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, he was greeted by Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, who had hung around after they finished to see if Thomas could win his first major championship.
Most PGA Tour players would have already hopped aboard their private jets and headed home, shooting their friend a text if he closed the deal. These young players are a little different.
After Thomas won the Dell Technologies Championship on Monday, Spieth was talking to a gaggle of reporters when Thomas walked by. Spieth interrupted the interrogation to walk over and give Thomas a hug, offering his congratulations. He came back and finished the interview session.
Some in the game don’t particularly like the fact that Spieth, Thomas, Fowler and others can be such good friends while they’re supposed to be competing ferociously with them. They think it harms the value of the competition.
You don’t have to hate your opponents to want very badly to beat them. But these young players can fight with 100 percent effort on the golf course, separating the personal from the competitive.
“I mean, I’m probably more excited than anything to get home and see one of my roommates, Tom Lovelady, who just got his PGA Tour card,” Thomas said after winning the Dell Technologies Championship, his fifth victory of the 2016-17 season. “He gets home Tuesday night, and we’re going to have a little dinner, celebrate on Wednesday. I’m more excited to see him and just tell him congrats than I am to celebrate my own victory.”
And if that doesn’t fit the description of selfish, narcissistic individual athletes that you’re accustomed to, welcome to the new normal in professional golf. But that doesn’t mean these players are 100 percent pure in their good wishes for their friends.
“I still get jealous,” Thomas says. “Any time any of my friends win and I don’t, I’m extremely happy for them, I’m pumped for them, I’m excited but I’m jealous. I wish I had three majors right now (like Spieth). I mean, I’m obviously pleased with one but I wish I had three.”
Make no mistake, this is not the first instance of close friends competing with one another on the PGA Tour. It goes back as long as there’s been a Tour. But there have been no other players who make their friendship as public as these guys do, sharing tweets and Instagram posts of their spring break trips with the world.
Spieth, Thomas and Fowler are the most visible of the friends, but Smylie Kaufman and others are included in this group. And it’s just a happy coincidence that they played junior golf against each other, played summer competition against each other and college golf against each other. They have just chosen not to go their separate ways once they came to the PGA Tour.
“I just think we grew up together,” Spieth said. “I think that happens with the people that — I mean, you grow up and you watch each other work from when you’re 14 years old. We roomed together when we were 14 years old. (Thomas is) one of my best friends in the whole world.
“Phil (Mickelson) and Tiger (Woods), if you’re going to use that as an example, they didn’t grow up together, room together, all that stuff, stay in touch through college and play in the same tournaments. I think it’s just a different situation when you kind of grow up, spend a lot of time. Justin and Rick(ie Fowler), they live on the same street and they spend most of their time at home together.”
Spieth knows that his friendships are unusual and concedes that not everyone might understand.
“We can share experiences with each other that we can’t really describe or explain to anybody else that’s our age, or very few, I should say, and it creates a unique relationship,” he says.