ERIN, Wis. -- Thirty minutes after Justin Thomas eagled the 18th hole on Saturday to polish off a 63 at Erin Hills, the lowest round in relation to par in U.S. Open history, I hit him with something of an unfair question: When everything is clicking, aren't you the best player in the world?
"No reason to answer that," he said, justifiably perturbed. "I can't win with the answer to that question."
He was right, of course. That kind of question is a classic trap. If Thomas agrees and doesn't live up to it on Sunday, it will be used against him forever, the same way Patrick Reed was mocked after saying he was a top-5 player in the world. If he balks and deflects, it looks like he lacks the steely self-confidence to be truly great. He can't win. So, in addition to all the other impressive things he did Saturday, I'll tip my cap to his media savvy. Such maturity is clearly one of the reasons he's in the final group at the U.S. Open, trailing Brian Harman by just a stroke at 11-under par.
Still, a part of me believes the question is fair -- even if Thomas can't answer it. Thomas isn't the best player in the world, week in, week out. But when everything is clicking, you can make a good case that Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day or Jordan Spieth are the stronger all-around golfers, and maybe always will be. But Thomas just might have a little Johnny Miller in him, the man whose U.S. Open record he displaced on Saturday.
Miller wasn't Jack Nicklaus or even Lee Trevino. His career, ultimately, pales in comparison to theirs. But on the right day, in the right round, Miller could blaze like a comet. He once said he thought he was a better iron player than Tiger Woods, and even if that sounds like blasphemy, Miller could at least make it an argument. Not many guys could even have that argument. Miller couldn't touch Nicklaus' or Woods' consistency, but his best might have been a hair better than their best. He couldn't conjure it up enough, but when he did, Miller was fearless.
All of which might be Thomas' calling, as well. And you know who shares that belief? Johnny Miller.
"Justin Thomas is a lot like I am -- he's a streaky player," Miller told Golf Channel on Saturday night. "When I was in my prime, it was the same way. I could get it really low."
Thomas' 63 at Erin Hills wasn't the outlier that Miller's 63 at Oakmont in 1973 was. In fact, Reed had a chance to shoot a 63, but he lipped out a birdie putt on 18 an hour before Thomas finished. Because of the rain that has fallen throughout the week, Erin Hills has been soft -- and gettable -- all week. Still, it takes a special kind of golfer to chase history and not feel overwhelmed. That's part of why Thomas was able to shoot 59 earlier this year in Hawaii, then back it up by setting the 72-hole scoring record on the PGA Tour. He doesn't pull back. He doesn't scare. Even the pink pants he likes to wear suggest a certain fearlessness.
"I had no idea that 9-under was the best ever in an Open," Thomas said. "So that was pretty cool once I saw my card."
It felt, for sure, like something special might be brewing early in Thomas' round after he made one of the tournament's most unlikely birdies on the 504-yard par-4 5th hole. Thomas hit a decent approach that somehow hung up in the fringe above the hole, leaving him a seemingly impossible downhill putt. He had to turn his body 90 degrees from the hole and putt sideways through the fringe, then let it trickle down the fault line. It was so precarious, Thomas said later he was just hoping to keep it inside 8 feet.
Instead, improbably, he made it.
"That putt was pretty special," said Thomas' father, Mike, a teaching professional in Kentucky. "To judge the line and the speed when you're putting away from the hole is so hard."
Thomas followed that up with three straight birdies to close out the front nine, and the gallery following him began to grow. The roars grew louder with each birdie. You could sense Thomas feeding off the energy, hammering drives and splitting fairways.
"The roars in a U.S. Open are really tough to compare to anything," Thomas said. "Just to hear all the people yelling my name and cheering me on between holes and in between shots is pretty special."
Mike Thomas said he knew his son's swing was in pristine shape coming into this U.S. Open, just based on a few videos he took of him on the range.
"I can't wait to share the videos with him tonight that I took of him," Mike Thomas said. "It was perfect. When you're like that, the only thing that gets in your way is yourself. You get impatient or you get mad or you take a bad line, that's your fault. It's not your golf swing's fault."
Even one of those -- an impatient bogey on the 10th hole, when Justin Thomas putted off the green from the upper tier -- couldn't derail his momentum. He bounced back with a birdie at 12, then admitted that after he drove the green on 15 and had a 6-footer for eagle, he was actually thinking about a different kind of history. Thirty players have shot 63 in a major. No one has ever gone lower.
"This is terrible, but I was thinking if I make this, I birdie the last three, I shoot 62, all-time major record," Thomas said.
Thomas' hands, though, were a bit jittery over the eagle putt, and he pushed it just a hair left of the hole. Not because he was nervous, he said, but because he was hungry.
"I was a little mad at myself because I could feel I was hungry on 14 and 15, I didn't have anything," Thomas said. "I just get a little shaky and jittery on putts [when I'm hungry], and that's what happened on 15."
It made for an usual sight: A player drives the green, makes a birdie to tie for the lead at the U.S. Open and he's livid as he walks off the green. But that was the scene as Thomas marched toward the 16th tee. Still, he managed to calm himself down, make a routine par, then roll in a 26-footer on 17 to get to 9-under on the day.
"That was probably one of my better reads of the day," Thomas said.
The biggest moment, though, was still to come. On the 18th hole, Thomas used a 3-wood off the tee at the 667-yard par 5, which left him 293 yards to the front of the green. He considered hitting an iron but ultimately decided on the 3-wood again, with the gallery murmuring in excitement as he stood over the ball. He took the club back slowly, then lashed at the ball with prodigious fury, launching it high into the air. He twirled his club, started walking, then turned to his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, and begged for it to be good.
"I obviously needed to nuke it," Thomas said. "But I just felt like I could get it up in the air enough to hold the green, as soft as they were."
Thomas' Titleist landed just on the fringe, then trickled just past the flag. You could hear the roar for half a mile. And as he walked up to the green, Thomas knew exactly what was at stake. He turned to Johnson and said, "let's try to become a part of history." The eagle putt was never in doubt.
There is no telling if Thomas will have enough to win his first major on Sunday. But if he does, it will be satisfying to see him step away from the role much of the media assigned to him early in his career: Jordan Spieth's good buddy.
While it's true Thomas and Spieth have been close since their days in junior golf, Thomas always bristled when people tried to funnel him into the role as Spieth's sidekick. You could tell he wanted to remind them that, on the right day, he has just as much game as his more-famous friend (if not more). Spieth already looks like he's going to be a historically great player, maybe his generation's Tom Watson. He'll likely grind his way to seven or eight majors. But Thomas' star, on the right day? Well, that might burn even brighter