RIDGELAND, S.C. (AP) — Aside from hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy at Southern Hills, perhaps the coolest memory of the year for PGA champion Justin Thomas can be described by the strictest standard as a failure.
Two weeks before the Major League Baseball lockout ended, Thomas took batting practice at a Cressey Sports Performance facility in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. It lasted all of three pitches, and Thomas never came close to making contact.
No shame there. On the mound was Max Scherzer of the New York Mets.
“I told my buddies whenever he pitched this year and had a great outing, ‘Dude, I totally understand where they’re coming from. He’s a hard guy to hit,’” Thomas said with a laugh.
He still has the video — a very short video — on his phone. The mystery is why Thomas hasn’t posted it to any of his social media accounts. He takes two athletic cuts on a fastball, and then Scherzer threw a breaking ball that had him lunging.
This came about through his relationship with Paul Goldschmidt of the St. Louis Cardinals (both work with trainer Kolby Tullier) and Anthony Rizzo of the Yankees, with whom Thomas has become friends.
“Goldy had been wanting me to take BP with him, and it just never worked out,” Thomas said.
But he had two weeks off following the West Coast Swing. A group of of baseball players trying to stay sharp during the lockout were training at Cressey. Thomas wasn’t playing a tournament that week and Goldschmidt asked him to come along.
“The pitchers were trying to stay fresh,” Thomas said, and by pitchers he was referring to the likes of Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander and Michael Wacha of the Red Sox.
“They had a routine and Scherzer was pitching a couple of innings and one of the guys said, ‘Do you want to stand in on Scherzer?’ And I was like, ‘Not really, to be honest with you,’” Thomas said. “I didn’t want to get hit.”
He was assured that Scherzer had more control with a baseball from 60 feet, 6 inches than Thomas did with a driver.
“They were giving me a hard time. ‘Don’t take the first pitch. You’ve got to swing,’” Thomas said. “So I stood in there. Swing. Swing. And then he threw a breaking ball on the last one and I think I missed it by 2 yards.”
Thomas said a radar gun on site had the fastballs clocked at 93 mph.
“It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting in the way. They were preparing. I would have loved to stay there and done more, but someone else was up. So I had my three strikes and went to the side. As soon as I struck out, everyone was like, ‘That’s all right. We’ve been there.’”
The only thing left is for Thomas to share the video. He doesn’t know why he hasn’t posted it and said he might at some point. It’s getting late in the year.
The new PGA Tour format in which top players agree to a 20-tournament schedule this season is still being massaged, and there’s already been one wrinkle.
The announcement in August was that top players would not receive their Player Impact Program bonus until they played in 13 elevated events and three other tournaments of their choice.
The PGA Tour policy board now is allowing an opt-out. Top players would be allowed to miss one elevated event for personal or professional reasons. The board also said players could count a fall event — last week’s CJ Cup, for example — as one of their three additional tournaments so they aren’t cramming 20 events from January to August.
More changes could be coming by January. The heavy lifting is what the schedule will look like in 2024. Several players who met privately in Delaware in August and came up with the framework for the new schedule have described 2023 as simply a bridge to bigger changes.
Eugenio Chacarra is an example of a top college player who chose to sign with LIV Golf and had it pay off quickly. He won in Bangkok and collected $4.75 million for the individual and team result.
Who’s next? Jon Rahm believes the PGA Tour needs to do better at identifying college stars to create an easier path.
“Every other major sport has a direct path to the major leagues from college except golf,” Rahm said last week at the CJ Cup.
The tour is taking steps.
Starting this year, the No. 1 player in the final PGA Tour University ranking will be able to go straight to the PGA Tour after the NCAA Championship is over.
Another proposal would provide an accelerated path for elite underclassmen who hit key benchmarks based on awards, their world amateur ranking and performance in amateur or professional events, including the majors.
Such players would be eligible for PGA Tour membership in June and be exempt into all open, full-field events.
Some personal changes are ahead for a couple of players. After the CJ Cup in South Carolina, Max Homa headed home to Arizona, where his wife is expecting their first child, a boy. Justin Thomas played his last event as a single man. He’s getting married in a few weeks.
Asked what he was looking forward to about having a son, Homa said being able to mold a person was a big responsibility.
“I’m also excited for the things I don’t even know I’m supposed to be excited about,” Homa said.
Rory McIlroy had his first child two years ago and was asked about the best things he was not expecting.
“I think it’s going back to those first things — first word, first step,” he said. “Just those first moments, and those firsts keep happening, right? It’s not as if they ever stop. There’s firsts all the way, I imagine all the way into teenage years and beyond.
“The one thing I’ve said since I’ve had a child,” he added, “I always thought I appreciated my parents, but it gives me much more appreciation for my parents after having kids.”
Jordan Spieth is the latest player to use a travel bus when it makes sense. The bus made its debut at Congaree last week in the CJ Cup. Spieth got the bus — and the driver — from Bubba Watson. Spieth hasn’t driven the bus yet, but he is licensed. “That would be scary,” he said. … The PGA Tour Champions announced a 28-tournament schedule for 2023 that will offer more than $66 million in prize money, the most since the 50-and-older circuit began in 1980. … The HSBC Champions in Shanghai was last played in 2019 and its future is uncertain. Also missing is one of the best nights of the year, the “HSBC Caddie of the Year” party. Not to worry. Billy Foster, the looper for U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick, was declared the winner and presented his trophy — a red bib — during the British Open. … The LPGA Tour’s stop at Wilshire Country Club has a new name and a bigger purse. The JM Eagle LA Championship will be April 27-30 with a $3 million purse, among the largest outside of the majors.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Hudson Swafford was the only player in all seven LIV Golf Invitational events who did not earn $1 million or more. He made $991,000, which is $151,000 more than if he had finished last in every event.
“I never feel like I’ve figured this game out. I don’t think I ever will figure it out. But every day I wake up trying to get closer.” — Rory McIlroy, who returned to No. 1 with his victory on Sunday.
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