CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jimmy Johnson has spent 20 years carrying clubs and counting yardage for some of the world’s best golfers – Nick Price, Michelle Wie, Charles Howell, Steve Stricker and now Justin Thomas.
For longer than that, however, Johnson has spent Masters week boarding in Aiken in the home of Christy and Steve Kisner. So when Sunday fulfilled his career goal with Thomas’ major triumph in the 99th PGA Championship as Quail Hollow, it came at the expense of a dear friend who led the other three rounds, Kevin Kisner.
“Bittersweet,” Johnson admitted after Kisner’s aggressive attempt for a tying eagle on the 18th hole led to a double instead and sealed it for Thomas and drop himself from runner-up to a tie for seventh. “Obviously if we didn’t win, I wanted Kiz to win. I’ve been staying with his parents for the last 23 years at the Masters. I don’t know, I might be kicked out now.”
This is the yin and yang in the tight-knit world of professional golf. For every victor there are inevitable victims on the major stages. Sunday revealed the 24-year-old Thomas as another member of the game’s growing legion of young superstars and left the 33-year-old Kisner still looking for that defining moment in a world filled with fearless 20-somethings like Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka who swept the left three majors.
“They’re all studs,” Kisner said of the players whose power and shot-making have trumped his determination and grit. “They’re way beyond me when I was their age.”
In his short career, Thomas has always seemed destined to join his best friend Spieth in the major elite. He shot 63 to put himself in the final group in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills before blowing up on Sunday. Whatever sting he felt there led to a patience that carried him in Sunday’s 68.
He escaped making double on his opening hole with a 14-foot putt that might have sent his Sunday on a different trajectory. Then things started to fall his way after the turn when his drive on the 10th hole bounced out of a tree into the fairway and his birdie putt hung on the lip for 10 seconds before succumbing to gravity.
“I started to think it might be our day – like that might be an omen,” Johnson said. “You have to have good things happen to you to win golf tournaments.”
Thomas already had that feeling the night before. Typically too superstitious to talk about winning on a Saturday, he broke from his established protocol.
“I had just the most comforting, easygoing – I truly felt like I was going to win,” he said. “I remember my girlfriend was supposed to fly out at about 7 o’clock and I was like, ‘You need to change your flight to later, because I don’t know, I just feel like I don’t want you to miss this. I feel like I’m going to get it done.’”
His closest friends must have felt the same way. Speith and Bud Cauley stuck around Quail Hollow for hours to join Rickie Fowler in greeting Thomas with hugs and congratulations behind the 18th green. His PGA professional father followed him all day with his club pro grandfather watched from Kentucky as Thomas fulfilled a destiny that’s three generations in the making.
“It’s a moment we’ll never forget, all of us,” Thomas said, admitting a “special drive” to win the PGA of America’s major.
That drive took over as the round wore on. The leaderboard got crowded with a five-way tie for the lead early on the back nine. While four of the contenders peeled off with bogeys, Thomas went the other way with a chip-in birdie on 13 that pushed him two shots clear and set in motion his run to victory.
“To see that was kind of crazy,” Thomas said of the logjammed leaderboard. “And then that chip-in on 13 was probably the most berserk I’ve ever gone on the golf course.”
Johnson hitched his wagon to Thomas’ star after picking up his bag for a one-off start at the Greenbrier in 2012. Months earlier at the rehearsal dinner before Kisner’s wedding, the groom pointed to Johnson and told his regular caddie Duane Bock, “There’s my next caddie right there.”
“Good,” said Bock. “I’ll go caddie for Stricker.”
But Johnson saw “a lot of talent” in Thomas that two years later he made “the hardest decision of my life” to leave Stricker to get on board with a can’t miss prospect. That move paid off Sunday with the moment of his lifetime.
“Incredible,” Johnson said. “That’s what I’ve been caddying my whole career for and I didn’t know if I was ever going to get one.”
Johnson stuck around in the scoring area to give Kisner a hug before the trophy presentation. In typical Kisner fashion, instead of kicking the caddie of his parents’ house next April, he’ll embrace the lesson for the next opportunity.
“He’s a good guy who’s helped me along in my career,” Kisner said of Johnson. “I’m excited to got to battle with him again.”
For the winner and the losers, golf rolls on.