Masters 2020: Why a Rory McIlroy vs. Justin Thomas finish would be especially epic

The two best golfers in the world heading into the 2020 Masters seem rather obvious to me. If you’ve been paying attention, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas have stood above the rest of the pack of the world’s top players. Above Jon Rahm and Dustin Johnson. Above Bryson DeChambeau and Webb Simpson. Above Patrick Cantlay and Patrick Reed. Certainly above Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka.

If you’re looking at a combination of wins, top 10s finishes, strokes gained, scoring average and threading it all together over the last few seasons, these two are peerless at this moment in 2020. They are playing the best golf at the highest level with no ceiling. 

If that’s true, then it seems only fair that we see these two horses go head-to-head for a Green Jacket come Sunday evening at Augusta National. Perhaps others would prefer Tiger vs. Phil Mickelson or Rory vs. Brooks Koepka (after Koepka hollered about their lack of rivalry at the majors last fall). But for me, considering the type of golf these two are playing, it’s Thomas and McIlroy. 

While they’ve had their battles at a variety of tournaments, they’ve never gone at it on a Sunday with a major championship on the line. If you’re picking 2020 destinies in terms of how the first major of the year ends, you could do a lot worse than this one. 

McIlroy has a fascinating (and well-documented) relationship with Augusta. There’s a bit of Ernie Els in there (“I won’t miss the place”), but he’s still young enough and playing good enough golf (arguably the best extended stretch of his remarkable career) that this could turn. He could feasibly walk away with multiple Masters wins over the next 10 years.

Thomas has improved at Augusta every year he’s played. From a T39 finish four years ago to a T22 to a T17 and finally a T12 last season. Truly contending for a win is the next logical step for him. If he lacks anything, it’s how many times he’s played his way into real contention at major championships.

This ideal scenario of Thomas and McIlroy out in front of the peloton isn’t without its pitfalls, though. McIlroy has twice swung for the knockout blow against those dodging loblollies and twice come up empty (once by TKO). Thomas can often run hot, which is one of his great assets … unless it leads to a putter and a card that have both gone cold. Both deal in bravado as their currency of choice, and we know what the second nine at Augusta sometimes thinks about bravado.

On the flip side, you could make the argument that — when they’re both feeling it from tee to green — nobody flushes it better than these two. There are few (if any) players in this modern game who invoke the “Good Will Hunting” scene like Thomas and McIlroy. Do you know how easy this is for me? Five-stroke wins, runaway heaters and swings that look as if Adam Scott blessed them himself. It is not in fact easy — none of it is — but the talent they’re both operating with and ceiling they’re both bumping make it sometimes seem like a different plane of the sport exists that others simply cannot see.

McIlroy, of course, is already an all-time great at age 30. He has achieved nearly 20 PGA Tour wins, four majors, a Range Rover full of Ryder Cup trophies and more memorable moments in the last five years than most will accumulate in a lifetime. It’s been longer than that since he won a major championship, though.

Thomas, 26, is not as accomplished but also not as old as McIlroy. His trajectory is McIlroy-ian, even if Rory’s greatest gear is a bit beyond what I believe Thomas is capable of (I think in a quiet, honest moment, he would admit that, too). 

But what would make this potential duel great is that Thomas won’t back down. He won’t get Wiesbergered, which is what happened the last time McIlroy won a major championship. Bernd Wiesberger got clipped by six by McIlroy in the final pairing at the 2014 PGA Championship and went tumbling down the leaderboard. No, Thomas would go step for step with McIlroy and vice versa. He wants the rock late with everybody holding their breath and the clock flirting with 0:00 more than almost anyone else in sports (not golf, sports).

Theirs is a relationship that intrigues me. When McIlroy broke down during The Open Championship at Royal Portrush last year, Thomas quickly (and poignantly) tweeted his support in a way that a good friend might. I don’t know if they’re good friends or how close two top-five players in the world even care to be, but I thought it was also eye-opening when McIlroy noted in a recent interview with the Irish Independent that he felt like he and Thomas were two of the hardest workers in the game. 

“I live in Jupiter at The Bear’s Club with a lot of other PGA Tour players,” said McIlroy. “And there’s two people in that area that practice more than anyone else — Justin Thomas and me.”

That quote is partially about himself, but it’s telling that he would loop Thomas in. He didn’t have to. It’s a sign of respect. A nod to somebody else who’s just as obsessed with the game as he is being great at it.

As people, I find McIlroy and Thomas to be terrific, but as competitors, I find them to be vile. Which is the whole point. Golf, especially at Augusta, is an ode to mild-mannered games and a gentlemanly endeavor. A J.T.-Rory war would be anything but that.

It’s easy to envision. Thomas throwing hooks early on the second nine. McIlroy answering in the middle with an eagle at No. 13, knowing this is the best chance he’s ever had at a jacket. Both of them going to No. 15 knowing the other has in some ways worked his entire life to stand at the top of that hill in this moment and stare across the fairway and then down toward the green at what awaits them over the next three holes.

We don’t get many heads-up battles like that at Augusta. For a few hours, maybe a few days, it would be anything but chivalrous. It would surely be over as quickly as it started, no matter the outcome, but two titans like that tussling for the most important piece of clothing in sports would be almost too much to take. Because while both are great players (perhaps both generationally great ones), the best asset they share is a sense of meeting the moment head-on until everything (and everyone) else fades away and all that’s left is one of them. The only question: Which one? 

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