If Justin Thomas beats Bubba Watson on Sunday, he'll become the third American to get to World No. 1 before turning 25. 

By Daniel Rapaport
March 24, 2018

Justin Thomas has been the hottest player on the planet for the better part of the last year, but he has yet to reach the pinnacle of the sport by becoming the world No. 1. That has a chance to change on Sunday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. 

Should he beat Bubba Watson in the semifinals in Austin, Thomas, 24, will join his good friends Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods as the only Americans to become the number one player in the world before turning 25. 

Since a less-than-stellar opening victory over Luke List, who putted with a wedge after compromising his putter on the seventh hole, Thomas has been in sparkling form. He faced Francesco Molinari on Friday in a match that would determine the winner of Group 2, and Thomas cruised to a 7&5 victory on the strength of six birdies in 13 holes. Thomas followed that up with a comfortable 6&5 win over Si Woo Kim in the round of 16 then overcame an early deficit—he trailed from holes 2-5, the only time he's trailed in the tournament—to edge Kyle Stanley 2&1 in the quarters. 

Thomas won seven times in the last 18 months, including his maiden major victory at the PGA Championship in 2017, and has finished in the top-two in each of his past two starts. He beat Luke List in a playoff at the Honda Classic, then lost to Phil Mickelson in a playoff the next week at the WGC-Mexico Championship after miraculously holing out for eagle on 18 to get into the playoff in the first place. 

Getting to number one will be anything but easy, as Watson has round into form after two years of disappointing play. The two-time Masters winner won earlier this year at the Genesis Open at Riviera and followed that up with a top-10 finish in Mexico. In Austin, Watson beat fellow lefty Brian Harman 2&1 in the round of 16 early Saturday morning then seized control on the back nine to top Kiradech Aphibarnrat 5&3 in the quarters. Watson has emerged as a real threat to win his third green jacket at Augusta in under two weeks' time, and his ability to bring courses to their knees with his length makes him a threat to go on the type of birdie streaks that win match play tournaments. 

The winner of the all-American Thomas-Watson tie will be joined in Sunday afternoon's championship match by either  Noren, who handled Aussie Cameron Smith in the quarters, or Kevin Kisner, who crushed Ian Poulter 8&6 to get to the semis.

Poulter needed to win that match to move into the world top-50 by Monday, which would have gained him entry into the Masters. The Ryder Cup legend could not replicate his stellar play of Saturday morning, when he tallied seven birdies to beat Louis Oosthuizen, and will likely miss Augusta. 

Coming into the week, few even considered whether Thomas would have a chance to get to No. 1 this week. That's because the man he can leap-frog into the top spot, Dustin Johnson, put forth a historically dominant performance en route to winning this tournament last year. Johnson didn't trail over the 112 holes he played and held a lead 96% of the time. But this time around, Johnson failed to hole putts and went 0-3 in group play, thus failing to advance to the knockout rounds.

That set the stage for Thomas, though the young American still had three knockout-round matches to get through in order to accomplish the feat. Never one to shy away from the big moment, Thomas finds himself on the precipice of history. 

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