NORTON, Mass. -- The first time Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas squared off in a head-to-head type of format was 10 years ago. It was the AJGA Junior All-Star at Walnut Creek, and Spieth introduced himself to Thomas on the practice range before they teed off together. They were co-leaders entering the second round of the two-day event before one of them pulled away for a convincing victory.
It was Spieth.
Five years later, they met as college freshmen in the match-play final of the NCAA championship at Riviera, Spieth representing Texas and Thomas playing for Alabama. The match was never really in doubt, as one of them raced to an early lead and held it throughout the day.
Again, it was Spieth.
Fast-forward a few more years: Spieth turned pro first. He won a PGA Tour event first. He played on a United States cup team first. He captured a major championship first.
For two careers that so similarly paralleled each other, witnessing his buddy's upper hand of success could've been enough to give Thomas a complex. It could've been enough for him to want to disassociate from the guy to whom he was so deeply connected that he spent his first few years as a pro being referred to with the prefix "Jordan Spieth's good friend ... "
"Definitely jealousy," Thomas said of watching Spieth ascend so quickly. "I still get jealous. Anytime any of my friends win and I don't, I'm extremely happy for them, I'm pumped for them, I'm excited. But I'm jealous."
There are plenty of players jealous of the 24-year-old Thomas right now.
On Labor Day afternoon, he posted a 5-under 66 to win the Dell Technologies Championship in convincing fashion, his fifth victory of the season, putting him on an exclusive list that this decade includes only Tiger Woods, Jason Day and, yes, Spieth, to win five times in a season.
This one was hardly a head-to-head battle like those at Walnut Creek and Riviera. They weren't paired together, and there was a bevy of other contenders also in the mix. The final leaderboard, though, for the first time in their professional careers, shows Thomas at the top and Spieth one notch below him -- an obvious change in dynamic from previous years.
"I felt like I was getting behind," explained Thomas of his first few years as a pro, "but at the same time, I was just starting and I can only do as much as I could do. I can't say that I saw this coming. It's not like I was like, 'Yeah, I know I'm going to win five or six times this year.' But I felt like I had the game and capability to. It just was a matter of it happening and everything working out."
"He probably had some feelings of anxiousness," Spieth said. "Just wanting to have those opportunities, wanting to get into the spots. I just started earlier than he did on tour. I feel like we're very similar caliber of player; I just got a couple years of experience head start. ... Obviously, he's become a tremendous closer. It's tough when you've got somebody that's that good and hot and can close."
At this point last year, Thomas was ranked 34th in the world and on the verge of getting passed over for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. In any other era, any other generation, any other parallel universe, he'd be celebrating the fact that his career had taken off so quickly, rather than bemoaning what he hadn't yet accomplished.
Of course, it sounds silly for an up-and-comer of his ability to feel like he was playing catch-up, but he credits the early career of Spieth and others for helping him reach this echelon so quickly.
"I think we've kind of pushed each other at every level," said Thomas, who moved to fourth in the world ranking, his highest position so far. "In college, we did, and amateur golf, we did. I mean, we're always competing, whether it was we want to be the top of the Rolex Rankings in junior golf when we're 15 or 16, we want to be the low junior golfer at the U.S. Amateur, we want to make the cut as an amateur in a tour event [or] we want to win college player of the year and lead our team's scoring average. Whatever it is, we're always competing and we always have. It's just, now we're at the top level you can get."
Thomas still remembers that day at Walnut Creek when Spieth shook his hand for the first time, then shot 71 to beat him by 5 strokes and leave him in a share of second place. He obviously still remembers the NCAAs, when his friend got ahead early and figuratively stiff-armed him around Riviera.
And he remembers just a few years ago when Spieth was busy winning two major championships and the FedEx Cup and rising to No. 1 in the world.
Thomas was jealous then, he admits, but it was a good kind of jealousy. The kind that pushed him to get into the position he's in currently.
Asked what the difference is between then and now, he lists a litany of reasons why he has climbed that similar career path as Spieth, then finally boils it down to just one thing: "I'm a lot better at golf."