Justin Thomas pacing Jordan Spieth as young Americans post historic starts

For some reason, Justin Thomas ejecting a fan from the Honda Classic on Sunday got the lion's share of the attention, but what we should have been paying attention to was the fact that Thomas took PGA National and just won for the eighth time in his first 101 PGA Tour events. 

That compares favorably to generational talents like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, and I think it means we might need to start discussing whether Thomas is among them. Here's a look at how Thomas stacks up through 101 events with Spieth, McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods.

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I love looking at trajectories of players when it comes to wins and top 10 finishes, and this chart is fascinating. Woods is obviously a joke. He won 24 times in his first 101 events. That's a number that I don't think will ever be matched. McIlory is as impressive as we've seen through 101 events (non-Tiger division) in recent years. It should also be noted that McIlroy played on the European Tour before coming across the pond to play on the PGA Tour. That's not something Spieth or Thomas did. 

Spieth and Thomas are right behind McIlroy. Both had one win through their first 50 events. Both had four wins through their first 75 events. Both now have eight wins through their first 101. Spieth has gone on to collect Nos. 9-11 in 132 total events played, but Thomas has probably a year and a half to match that.

Even more interestingly, both are ahead of the paces set by Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson early in their careers and well ahead of contemporary Rickie Fowler. These are historically great numbers, and I'm not sure we fully appreciate them (mostly because of Tiger).

When you extrapolate them into a full career, they become even more eye-opening. Thomas plays in about 27 events a year. As he gets older, I suspect that number will go down. Let's make it 25 a year and say he keeps the same winning percentage until he's 40 (there will be ebb and flow, but the sample size is big enough to think this is realistic). That's 30 more wins in addition to the eight he already has. That's, gulp, pretty close to Phil Mickelson's career of 42 wins. I should remind you that Mickelson is probably one of the 15 best golfers who has ever walked the planet.

Spieth plays in fewer events per year than Thomas, but he's currently three events up on him, too. It's not unreasonable to think that he could end up with around 40 wins, too. The real battle will be on the major front. Spieth won two of his first nine as a pro. Thomas won his first on his ninth try last August. Spieth has extended that to three majors in 19 tries. We'll see where Thomas is 10 majors from now.

The average number of world ranking points earned by them in their first eight victories is close, but Spieth is buoyed by his first two majors (which account for 100 OWGR points each).

Jordan Spieth: 60 (first 8 wins)
Justin Thomas: 59.5 (8 total wins)

But still, it's not outrageous to question whether Thomas' resume is equal to that of Spieth's through around 100 tournaments. Hell, if he wins the Masters in April, Thomas will probably have surpassed Spieth's resume through the same number of events at that point in their careers. A big if, I know, but one that's certainly on the table.

The fact that we're even talking about two 24-year-old golfers like this is crazy. Statistically speaking, though, it also makes sense. Both golfers were in the top six from tee to green in 2017, and both are in the top 15 again this year. 

They are two of the best ball-strikers in the world, but for me it rolls a little deeper than that.

This is completely speculative and mostly anecdotal, but it seems to me that there aren't two golfers in the world who care more about winning and legacies than these two. That's not to say that other golfers don't care, but few can marry talent at the highest level with a preternatural desire to eviscerate everything standing between them and what they believe to be their destiny.

Perhaps that's overwrought, but I don't think it's overstated. Nothing drives Spieth and Thomas like greatness, and maybe nobody else in the world is driven in the same way. Part of this is probably a result of growing up with all the trappings that come with being elite amateur golfers. They've touched the top of the mountain, seen what it looked like and known that there's nothing they'd rather do than return (over and over and over again).

Thomas did so five times last year, and he's trying to do the impossible this year: slap together an encore that matches the original performance. He's two wins deep with all four majors still in front of him.

"This definitely takes the pressure off me," said Thomas on Sunday. "What I was pleased with with myself and I said this to my dad, said this to [caddie] Jimmy [Johnson], everyone on my team; I want to be more consistent this year and I want to have more chances to win.

"Obviously, I would love to win five times every season. If that meant my exact stats from last year, I'll take that every single year. But I feel like when I give myself a chance to win, I feel comfortable and I feel like I can get it done. That's why this year I wanted to do so more. I've been happy with how consistent I've been. But without any wins [in 2018], I'm constantly being reminded. 

"It's nice to get it a little bit off my back."

This from a guy who went all of five events between victories!

So maybe we don't get 10-15 years of Thomas vs. Spieth battling for the No. 1 player in the world ranking. Maybe McIlroy rebounds and laps them both. Maybe Dustin Johnson hangs on for another 10 years. Maybe Jon Rahm is actually a lot better than either Spieth or Thomas. But through 100 events of their respective careers, the picture has become clearer for these two young Americans, ranked No. 3 and No. 4 in the world. 

They are two modern greats with history looming somewhere in the not-so-distant future. And the question is no longer, Will Thomas ever be as good as his old pal Jordan? Rather, the real question is one we never saw coming: What if he's better?

CBS Sports Writer

Kyle Porter began his sports writing career with CBS Sports in 2012. He covers golf, writes poetry about Rory McIlroy's swing, stays ready on Tiger watch and loves the Masters more than anyone you know.... Full Bio

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