Justin Thomas watched PGA history, and now has a chance to make it

Through the years, the story has taken on a life of its own.

Justin Thomas was indeed 7 years old and at Valhalla Golf Club for the 2000 PGA Championship when Tiger Woods made his famous putt in a playoff victory over Bob May.

Some accounts have made it seem like Thomas climbed under the ropes and was kneeling on the edge of the green.

Setting the record straight Wednesday, on the eve of his attempt to defend the PGA he won last year, Thomas said he watched on television from the Valhalla clubhouse when Woods walked after his ball, pointing dramatically as it dropped in for birdie on the first of three extra holes.

“Although I probably wasn’t too smart,” Thomas said with a grin, “I was smart enough to know I wasn’t going to see any golf if I went out on the golf course. … I was perfectly content in the middle of August in Louisville in that air-conditioned clubhouse watching on TV.”

It was a week that changed his life, making it all the more surreal that the 25-year-old Thomas is grouped with the 42-year-old Woods and Rory McIlroy, 29, in the first two rounds of the PGA that begins Thursday at Bellerive Country Club.

A Kentucky native, Thomas first played at Valhalla at 6 years old with his father, a teaching pro. To see the greatest player of his generation win there gave him a vision for what he wanted to do with his life.

“Just hearing the roars, and how many people, and the shots that Tiger was hitting, the putts he was making,” Thomas said.

“It just got me motivated, being on that range and seeing those guys. It’s, like, man, I want to do this, even at 7 years old. … I’m sure nothing really too intelligent was going on in my head, but I do know I recognized enough that I wanted to do that just from watching, because of how cool it was.”

The PGA of America’s pairing of Thomas with Woods was really a no-brainer, considering the possible historical implications. After winning his first major in the PGA last year at Quail Hollow, Thomas can pull off a double.

Since the PGA went to stroke play in 1958, only one man has done that — Woods, who has accomplished it twice.

Woods hadn’t played the course since 2001, and he made a veteran move Wednesday, setting up a practice round with Thomas, who toured the layout in a June media visit.

Woods might need more than a few tips to beat him.

Beyond his FedEx Cup playoff title last year, and three victories this year including the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last week, Thomas is a Midwestern kid who is accustomed to summer humidity, soggy courses and less-than-smooth greens.

Valhalla, it should be noted, is a mere 4½-hour drive east from of Bellerive on Interstate 64.

“It’s right in front of you,” Thomas said of this week’s course. “It’s see the fairway, hit the fairway.”

The challenge may be more about managing other peoples’ expectations. There were a number of questions for Thomas at his news conference about the pressure to repeat.

“It doesn’t make it any harder to defend,” Thomas said. “The fact of the matter is that it’s hard to win a golf tournament.”

Thomas has a close friend in Brooks Koepka who knows what he’s going through. It was Koepka who successfully defended at the U.S. Open this year, becoming the first in the national championship to do so since Curtis Strange in 1988-89.

Marveling at the chance to similarly make history, Thomas recalled playing in the same group with Koepka during the NCAA Championships at Riviera Country Club in 2012.

“It’s just kind of cool that we’ve gone up the scale,” Thomas said. “And now we’re at the top of the top.”

At Riviera that same year was another of Thomas’ buddies, Jordan Spieth. Indeed, it was Spieth who drained the winning putt to clinch the national title for Texas.

Spieth is on his own quest this week. With victories in the other three majors, the 25-year-old can become the second-youngest, behind Woods, to complete the career Grand Slam.

Only five players have achieved career slams, and McIlroy (in the Masters) and Phil Mickelson (U.S. Open) already have failed to do it this year.

This is only Spieth’s second try, since he won his first British Open a year ago. Last year, he tied for 28th in the PGA at Quail Hollow.

“I think I was probably a little more anxious last year,” said Spieth, who already has 11 tour wins. “Going in, there was a big focus on it, given it was right after the Open Championship. It was fresh, I was in form, and going to a place that if I worked up the leaderboard, it would create a lot of noise.

“I feel somewhat under the radar this year. I’ve kind of felt that way a lot this year. I don’t mind it.”

Struggling at times with a usual strength, his putting, Spieth hasn’t won since the British Open and has been wildly inconsistent. He was third in the Masters, missed the cut in the U.S. Open and challenged in the British Open.

But a final-round 76 at Carnoustie knocked him down to a tie for ninth, and Spieth did a careful analysis, concluding he made poor choices on the way he aimed a couple of tee shots on Sunday.

“I’ve had instances where, like Chambers Bay (in the 2015 U.S. Open), where I didn’t think I won when I finished, and then I ended up winning the golf tournament,” Spieth said. “So it goes both ways.”

He noted the 19 runner-up finishes Jack Nicklaus suffered alongside winning 18 majors.

“The point is,” said Spieth, “you put yourself in position enough, it will go your way sometimes, and sometimes it won’t. It’s easier to accept if that’s the way you look at it.”

Supreme Court makes sports betting a possibility nationwide

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The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a federal law that bars gambling on football, basketball, baseball and other sports in most states, giving states the go-ahead to legalize betting on sports.

The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a federal law that bars gambling on football, basketball, baseball and other sports in most states, giving states the go-ahead to legalize betting on sports.

USA Today ranks Aztecs No. 20 in preseason top 25 football poll

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USA Today wonders if SDSU can match recent rushing success while ranking Aztecs in preseason top 25 poll.

USA Today wonders if SDSU can match recent rushing success while ranking Aztecs in preseason top 25 poll.

San Diego State's Rashaad Penny heading to Seattle

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Aztecs star Rashaad Penny goes to Seattle Seahawks, joining Penn State’s Saquon Barkley as first running backs selected in NFL Draft.

Aztecs star Rashaad Penny goes to Seattle Seahawks, joining Penn State’s Saquon Barkley as first running backs selected in NFL Draft.

2018 NFL Draft: First 15 picks

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The first 15 picks of the NFL Draft.

The first 15 picks of the NFL Draft.

NFL Mock Draft 2018

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The NFL Draft has become a nice appetizer before our main course in September. A mock version of said draft is meant to educate, and even entertain. At very least, it helps you pass the time.

The NFL Draft has become a nice appetizer before our main course in September. A mock version of said draft is meant to educate, and even entertain. At very least, it helps you pass the time.

[email protected]; Twitter: @sdutleonard

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