PGA Championship: Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas playfully spar at presser ahead of early-round pairing

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Justin Thomas arrived for his 3 p.m. pre-tournament press conference early. So early, in fact, that Rory McIlroy still was answering one last question about how important it was in his career to win his second major at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course in 2012.

“A lot of guys have won one major, but it’s a big hurdle to get to the second. It was good to get that monkey off my back, especially here, playing so well,” McIlroy said staring directly at Thomas, whose lone major came at the 2017 PGA Championship.

“So yeah, it was a big deal,” McIlroy finished, struggling to keep a straight face as Thomas stewed in the back of the open-air tent. “I definitely didn’t want to be stuck on one for a long time, so happy to get that second.”

As McIlroy wrapped up and walked off the stage, Thomas muttered some choice words under his breath, smiled the smile of a man who could take a joke, and said, “Well played.”

It didn’t take long for Thomas to be asked for his rebuttal.

“I can’t really say too much, other than it’s great to see him win. I know it’s been a really long time for him, so I’m glad to see him,” Thomas said.

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It was a subtle jab at McIlroy, the recent Wells Fargo Championship winner who had gone some 550 days without tasting victory, and it too deserved a “well, played,” for the return of serve.

“But at the same time,” Thomas continued. “I really don’t want to egg him on because usually when he wins he likes to reel some off, and with a lot of big tournaments coming up I don’t really want to poke the bear.”

What Thomas, who will be grouped in a threesome alongside McIlroy in the opening two rounds, would like to do is find his touch on the green. He putted horrifically at the Valspar Championship in Tampa three weeks ago, losing nearly six strokes to the field over the first three rounds, which prompted him to say that had he putted decently he’d be winning the tournament. Thomas has been working hard with his putting coach, John Graham, to be less mechanical with his stroke.

“Just simplifying it,” he said. “I’m very feel based and very artistic, if you will, in terms of seeing shots and hitting different spins on chip shots, pitch shots, whatever it is, and I need to take that same outlook into my putting.”

Thomas said he did just that at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“Once I tee up, I have to just go be athletic and be artistic and just go out and hit the putts the speed that I want. That’s something I did on Sunday at Quail Hollow, is just tried to be less perfect and just more feel based, and I putted the ball beautifully even with two three-putts there,” he said.

Thomas arrived for the 103rd PGA on Sunday, playing 18 holes, and was pleased he had a chance to play the Pete Dye layout in opposite wind directions. He also picked the brain of Tiger Woods, but said Tiger didn’t have a lot to offer given he finished T-11 in 2012.

“He pretty much hit the nail on the head. It’s long, there’s a lot of crosswinds, and have a good short game,” Thomas said.

Long is selling it short. This will be the longest course to host a major championship at 7,876 yards, surpassing Erin Hills in 2018. Thomas laughed out loud last week when someone sent him an image of the scorecard and he noticed the back nine measured more than 4,000 yards.

“They can’t possibly play it that long. Unless they get a day where there’s absolutely no wind,” Thomas said. “They can’t play 14, that par 3, back if you have this wind today. Guys are going to be literally hitting driver on that hole. Unless the PGA wants seven-hour rounds, I wouldn’t advise it.”

Forget the tale of the tape. Let’s get ready to rumble.

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