MEMPHIS, Tenn. – When Steve Williams proclaimed Adam Scott’s victory at the 2011 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational the “most satisfying win” of the caddie’s career, many viewed that as a not-so-subtle jab at his former employer, Tiger Woods.
Jim “Bones” Mackay would have no part of a similar slight. Instead, he simply celebrated what was a milestone victory on many levels for Justin Thomas Sunday at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
With a final-round 65, Thomas, 27, became the third-youngest player on the PGA Tour to reach 13 victories. He also moved back to No. 1 in the world, a spot he held for four glorious weeks in 2018.
Early last week, Thomas said he hoped to regain the top spot in the world and hold it for a “long amount of time.” Pressed for what he considered a “long amount of time” he quipped, “Anything longer than the [four] weeks that I had it or whatever it is.”
That he did it with Mackay – who was filling in for Thomas’ normal caddie, Jimmy Johnson, who has been slowed by the heat in recent weeks – by his side only added a dollop of intrigue to an already entertaining afternoon.
You see, Mackay and Phil Mickelson parted ways in 2017 after a 25-year tenure together and although there’s been plenty of speculation as to why the game’s most dynamic duo would split it’s always been just that – speculation.
Sunday’s third-to-last twosome of Thomas and Mickelson meant that the former caddie and former boss would be paired together for the first time since they - he, whoever - tapped out. When the duo split, they released a joint statement that said all the right things – “one of the most important and special people in my life,” Mickelson wrote of Mackay at the time of the break – but at TPC Southwind there apparently was nothing left to say, with little or no chitchat between the two.
Both Mickelson and Mackay declined to talk with the media after the round, but if the drama, be it real or manufactured, between the two added to the afternoon, the ultimate show was the quality of the competition.
Since the Tour’s return in early June the one constant has been the lack of fans and buzz on the weekend, but even without the traditional crowds at TPC Southwind the tension was still evident and only grew when overnight front-runner Brendon Todd faltered on the back nine.
“Even out there with no fans today, it's like coming down those last three holes, it's fun having the juices and it's fun having the 2-, 3-footers that I had on 16 and 17 and feeling nervous over them,” Thomas said.
With five tied late for the lead, including Todd, Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger, Thomas took control of the tournament with a style of play Mackay is familiar with after two and half decades with Mickelson. After his drive sailed well right of the 16th fairway, Thomas chipped out of the woods, dropped his wedge shot to 3 feet and made the birdie.
“I was trying to get something either up in those bunkers or just right of the green [with his punch out], but we just kind of talked through it,” Thomas said. “[Mackay] has been in those situations before in the trees and seen different shots and I have as well, so we made the right decision.”
Koepka, whose struggles this season have been well-documented, provided a glimpse into a game that will make him one of the favorites next week at TPC Harding Park, where he is the two-time defending champion. But when he had a chance to apply pressure at the par-5 16th hole he airmailed the green from 42 yards and the bogey dropped him two shots back.
Despite an aggressive double-bogey-6 on the 72nd hole, Koepka appears to have finally clued back into whatever gene has made him a major machine in recent years.
“I feel good. I feel like my game's right there. This is where we wanted to be, peaking for the PGA. I feel like my game's right there, everything's solid,” said Koepka, who led the field with his ball-striking, but struggled on the weekend with his putter. “I hit a lot of good putts today, just didn't go in. I'm pleased with it.”
Give JT style points this time around for degree of difficulty with a collection of the game’s biggest names crowded around him for much of the afternoon, a replacement caddie on the bag and some relatively new baggage to deal with.
Thomas could be forgiven for letting his mind slip back to last month’s Workday Charity Open which he lost in dramatic fashion to Collin Morikawa after taking a three-shot lead into the final three holes. But where some see baggage, JT instead considered the lesson.
“I think that's something that helped today in terms of learning from Workday, I just didn't get ahead of myself anytime those last two, three holes, where I felt like my mind was kind of wandering and maybe thinking about winning,” he said. “I basically just told myself to shut up and figure out what you're doing because I could lose that tournament just as easily as I won it today.”
It wasn’t the “most satisfying” victory of Mackay’s career and it certainly wasn’t Thomas’ best, but as the Tour braces for the season’s first major and a sprint to the Tour Championship, it was compelling theater.