Sobel: With Bones on the Bag, Thomas Might Be the Play for St. Jude Invitational Round 4
Michael Reaves/Getty Images. Pictured: Justin Thomas and Jimmy “Bones” McKay
As a pre-tournament Justin Thomas bettor this week, I love the fact that we can go Walking in Memphis right down Narrative Street on Sunday afternoon. And even if you don’t buy that, Thomas is a viable play.
With Thomas sitting at 8-under, in fifth place and just four strokes behind leader Brendon Todd, he’ll be a witness to a very improbable reunion in a very coincidental location.
Thomas’ usual caddie, Jimmy Johnson, has taken a few weeks off to deal with some health issues, and so he has Jim “Bones” Mackay on the bag for the first of two events. In Sunday’s final round of the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, he’ll play in the third-to-last pairing of the day with Phil Mickelson — the man who just happened to work with Bones for a quarter-century.
In fact, the last tournament they ever worked together was in Memphis, three years ago.
The next week, Bones checked out Erin Hills and waited, but Mickelson couldn’t get to the U.S. Open site in time after attending his daughter’s graduation and was forced to withdraw. Shortly thereafter, they split for good.
What does it mean for the final round? How could it impact the result?
None of us should be naïve enough to believe Bones will — or even can — “caddie harder” just because his former boss is in the same group. He’s not giving more precise yardages or pulling better clubs or offering improved putting reads.
If they ever let caddies into the World Golf Hall of Fame, he’s a first-ballot selection and has undoubtedly done a top-notch job of helping his player get into contention this week.
“Luckily, I had him before, Sony [Open] a couple years ago, so it’s not a totally new experience,” Thomas said of working with Mackay. “Just like it is for him, it’s different for me as well. Every day is more comfortable than the previous day.”
Even if there are no words spoken between Thomas and Bones about what it might mean for the latter to win while playing alongside Mickelson, you know JT clearly understands it.
Playing with Mickelson is already motivation enough. In one of Phil’s Phireside Chats posted to social media last year, Thomas told a story of the first time they played together, which ended with him saying, “We weren’t as close as we are now, but I know you like to talk smack, so I said, ‘Nice shot Phil, just a little bit outside of mine.’”
Just a few months ago, Thomas worked as an on-course TV commentator for the Champions for Charity match and didn’t hold back on talking smack to Mickelson there, either.
Even if you don’t buy into all of these narratives, though, even if you don’t think it matters who’s playing with whom and how that might impact scoring, Thomas is still a viable live outright option entering the final round.
At +700, I like him for very much the same reasons I liked him prior to the opening round.
He’s been really close to putting everything together a handful of times since the PGA TOUR restart and his ball-striking has remained impeccable, ranking second so far this week in both Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and Strokes Gained: Approach, as he’s sandwiched a couple of 66s around an even-par 70.
I also don’t love his fellow contenders at shorter prices. We can find a good reason to fade each of ‘em.
Todd (+225) was in this same position entering the final round of the recent Travelers Championship, only to post a final-round 75 and finish T-11. Byeong-Hun An (+400) isn’t exactly known as a convincing closer, still searching for his first PGA TOUR victory and armed with a consistently balky putter.
That closing issue goes doubly for Rickie Fowler (+450) and his final-round scoring average ranking of 106th this season only helps to prove that point. Then there’s Brooks Koepka (+500), who certainly knows how to close, but coming off a poor recent stretch of golf, his game has looked both brilliant and miserable throughout this week.
All of which leaves Thomas, the lone contender about whom we can’t really find any outstanding inadequacies.
Of his 12 career victories, four have come in come-from-behind fashion going into the final round, including the 2016 CIMB Classic, when he trailed by four entering Sunday — the very same deficit facing him in this scenario.
Maybe being joined by Bones and playing with Mickelson will provide a little extra motivation for Thomas. Maybe it won’t matter at all.
Either way, he’s clearly hungry for another win — and the price might be right to take a chance on that happening Sunday afternoon.