With a swing belying his size, Justin Thomas rockets up the PGA Tour
Justin Thomas dropped to the practice green at Riviera Country Club, rolling around in hysterics, flabbergasted that Jordan Spieth's caddie Michael Greller had missed a putt (and missed it badly) during a drill. It was the eve of the Genesis Open, and in a sport where silence and seriousness often reign, the 24-year- old from Kentucky was acting his age, his smile extending from his face to the sparkle in his eyes. He was acting out the sheer joy of how far he had risen in the game of golf.
And why not? As the newest generation of players ascends to the summit of golf's mountain, led by Rory McIlroy and Spieth, Thomas has joined the climbing party in an impressive manner and has fulfilled the imperative of his golf DNA. With a powerful swing that literally takes his shoes off the ground, sending the ball to extreme distances and making him one of the top 10 drivers on the PGA Tour, he's done what he's expected himself to do—be a PGA Tour winner, throw himself into the conversation about major championships, vault into the top 10 of the world rankings.
His start to the wraparound 2016-17 PGA Tour season was sensational, first winning the CIMB Classic in October in Malaysia where he defended his first ever Tour title. In January he took Hawaii by storm, winning the SBS Tournament of Champions and following it up with a victory at the Sony Open on Oahu that was punctuated by becoming the youngest player in PGA Tour history to shoot a 59. He also posted the lowest 72-hole score in PGA history.
So here is Thomas getting himself ready for one of the Tour's most prestigious tournaments, soaking in the L.A. sunshine and having a right old cracker of a time with one of his best buddies. Riviera will see a lot of Thomas over the years, and had seen him as a college player in the past. "I love this place, I really do," says Thomas.
He came to this famous track full of confidence and, more importantly, full of great expectations. Yes, the three Tour wins to start the season are great, going into the record books with a 59 is great, being a top-10 player is great, but there is so much more. "It's definitely the best of my career," Thomas says of his recent play. "I definitely haven't shown the world my best golf. I haven't even shown the world great golf, or consistent great golf."
He says these words matter of factly, sitting in the player lounge at Riviera. All the great players have played and won here, and Thomas expects to count himself among them one day. His words come out of his round, bright face not so much as self criticism, but self belief. He's confident going on cocky but all athletes need a substantial ego to succeed.
The confidence, and the seeds of his talent, are in his blood. His father Mike, who is also his coach, is a PGA of America master professional at the Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Kentucky. His grandfather Paul was head professional at the Zanesville Country Club in Ohio, and played in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
Justin had a club in his hand by the age of two—his father cut down a persimmon 2-wood—and he has whaled away at the ball with a vengeance ever since. By the family calculation he has won at least 125 tournaments starting in his junior years, flowing through a successful college career at the University of Alabama where he won the national title, turning pro and stepping up to the Web.com Tour where his success gained him entry to the PGA Tour.
There were also many national and international appearances on the Walker Cup team, the Palmer Cup team, the World Amateur team, the Junior Ryder Cup team. In 2009 at the age of 16 he got a sponsor's exemption into the PGA Tour's Wyndham Championship and shot a 65 in the first round, going on to make the cut. There is a display of his accomplishments in the pro shop at Harmony Landing which includes a ball from each of his tournament victories. All the memorabilia goes to underscore the golf DNA that courses through the family.
Standing on the Riviera putting green as his son takes a few strokes, Mike Thomas can't explain why his son got the deep end of the gene pool, he's just darn proud that he does. "If you knew what the difference [between his son and him] was, you could clone it for sure," says Mike, a soft-spoken, modest man with a regal bearing. "He's always been very driven, he's blessed with talent, blessed with more talent than my father and I."
Thomas has recorded several 400-yard drives on the Tour, hit a measured 3-wood in Hawaii at 357. He was ranked in the top 10 on Tour in driving distance through the first third of the season, averaging around 308 yards. All this accomplishment springs from a mighty-mite body of five-feet, 10 inches in height, and maybe 150 pounds.
Rory McIlroy, a bomber himself, isn't much bigger than Thomas, but through strenuous workouts he's become a hunk. Thomas? He's a muffin. He's trim and toned and works out, more for injury prevention than to develop a set of guns. He's not physically impressive, isn't the athletic monster of a Dustin Johnson or a Jason Day, or even as big as his buddy Spieth. Rickie Fowler is ripped by comparison.
Not looking like the Hulk doesn't matter on the teebox. When Thomas takes a swing with his driver, it's "Kaboom." Even he doesn't fully understand where his length comes from. "It doesn't make a lot of sense, looking at my stature and my frame," says the young golfer, stealing a glance at his biceps, which don't exactly ripple. "A lot of it is technique, of how I deliver the club to the ball and using the ground force, as it's called. I'm basically in the air when I hit it, up on my toes and hitting it solid is the most important thing. I feel like the greatest thing about the driver for me is that I can hit a lot of shots. I feel like if I have to hit the fairway I can hit it low and fly it 270-280 and if it's firm it will roll out to 320. If I have bunker at 310 and it's a little downwind, I can put it up in my stance and carry it."
His dad watched his son explode into the ball from the very beginning and realized that was what Justin needed to do. "I was very short and he was very short until like his senior year in high school," says Mike. "Because he was so small he swung really hard at it. We have videos of him coming off the ground. His feet coming off the ground swinging as hard as he could when he was 8, 9 years old."
While he's glad to have the length, and length is an extremely important component of the modern game, it's the development of the short game that has accelerated Thomas' rise to the top. "If it's driving it another 15 yards or making one more 30-foot putt every round, I'll take the putt," says Thomas. "Hey, that's four shots better over the course of a tournament. That goes a long way up the leaderboard."
The short game takes patience, in practice and practicality. The game itself takes patience on the day-to-day level. Patience and youth aren't necessarily a harmonious blend, especially when Thomas saw Spieth win the Masters and U.S. Open and rocket to the top. Spieth, among others, has been an inspiration of sorts to Thomas, his success making him feel as if he had underachieved.
"I think it drove me a lot," Thomas says. "It's weird, I mean, I wasn't mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating sometimes seeing some friends and peers my age do well. Not because I wasn't cheering for them, because I feel like I was as good as them. It's just immature of me. I mean, the fact of the matter is, over the course of a long career, we're going to beat each other. That's just how it is."
So he struggles with patience while embracing its necessity. "I think I've gotten better at it every year. My rookie year I struggled with it a little bit. Last year at points I would struggle with it," he says. "I think at this game, it doesn't matter who you are or how long you've been out, you have to be very patient and there are going to be times where you struggle with it. It's about managing it and still figuring out a way to get it done. And that's why I've done so well out there this year. You just have to realize there are days when things aren't going to go your way, you are not going to be playing well and you just have to enjoy the grind of shooting the best number you can when you aren't playing well."
Part of that goes to a conversation he had with golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who had reached out to him and told him that if he ever wanted to talk about the game, his door was open, literally. Nicklaus invited Thomas to his home in Palm Beach, Florida, and the two talked for nearly three hours. One Nicklaus remark stood out. "I had the same game plan during a tournament when I was playing bad as when I was playing good: being just as aggressive, hitting at every pin," says Thomas. In response, Nicklaus said, "When you're hitting it bad, you can't do that. When I'm playing bad, I need to just hit the green. I remember that talk a lot."
While there have been plenty of talks over the years, his father has always stressed that Justin needed to know his own game, and be able to fix or alter it as he went along. "I'd watch him hit a few balls and ask him what he thought was causing the ball to do what it did," says Mike. "I'd tell him, ‘What are you going to do, call me when you're on the 15th hole of a tournament?' Because of that, he knows his own game.
"I teach all my kids, when they first come to the club, your goal is not to need me. You can come out and show me how great you are hitting it or ask any questions. I always taught Justin that way. You have to know your own game and how to make a fix on the fly. The part you can't figure out how or why he could fix himself and create shots long before we talked about the fault or the fix. He figured a lot of that out on his own."
So much of success on the Tour comes from the short game—getting the ball into the hole. Putting, chipping and pitching isn't as adrenalin inducing as bombing the driver 350 or sticking a 5-iron 220. But when it comes down to the show and the dough, the short game is the payoff, and Thomas knew he had to get better.
"I had to work a lot on my short game. That was the biggest difference between college to Web.com to PGA Tour," says Thomas. "Chipping and putting, patience and acceptance is the biggest thing. It's not one tournament, it's a long year, it's the money list, it's the Fedex Cup points list. If you miss a cut or finish 40th or 50th, you just have to take the positives from the week and build on the negatives, which is what I've done a pretty good job of."
He certainly did a record-book job of it when he shot the 59 at the Waialae CC in Honolulu. And he did it with an early bogey. The score was 11 under par on a par 70 course.
"I fully had faith in myself that I could shoot a really low number, shoot in the 50s," says Thomas. "It's nice to have that in my record that I have actually done it. I hope to have plenty more chances in my career. You obviously don't know if that's going to happen or not, but I have always felt like I have been a person that can get pretty hot, and when I get it going, I can shoot some low scores. I guess it just kind of validated that a little bit."
The round and the victory validated a lot about his talent and fortitude, something that Spieth knew well. They had been bumping up against each other in junior and college events, had been teammates on international teams for more than a decade. At the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, Spieth finished third and was there to congratulate Thomas on his win when he came off the 18th hole.
"Yeah, I think it's potentially floodgates opening for him," said Spieth at the time. "The guy hits it forever. He's got a really, really nifty short game. He manages the course well. He used to hit more drivers, and he's dialing back a bit now and hitting like a trusty 2-iron out there that he can still hit 285 yards, you know, with a little bit of roll. So, really excited for him. It's awesome. It's awesome to see. He's going to be tough to beat next week, too."
And he was, especially when he started with a 59. Daniel Berger, another longtime rival and friend, played with him the first two rounds. "That week at the Sony Open, I've never seen a guy play like that," says Berger. "Like, he didn't even know what he was doing. He would just hit the ball and it would be 10 feet and would make the putt." By the way, Berger shot 65-67 in those first two rounds and was nine shots behind Thomas.
After his Hawaiian wins, Thomas headed to Augusta National for a casual round with his dad. Masters invitees get to play the course in advance of tournament week. Thomas played in the Masters for the first time in 2016 and now because of his additional Tour wins and high world ranking, Thomas was at Augusta this year with high hopes for his first major victory. But even in the casual round with his dad, he was nervous on the first tee. "Yeah, I think of anywhere to be nervous, it's Augusta National," says Thomas. "But I also think it's perfect for more. I can take advantage of my length there and if I get my putter going, I can score there."
While it is sometimes difficult to come down off a golf high, Thomas knows that he needs to get away from the game, get the thoughts of drives and putts and strategies on the back burner. He shares a house in Jupiter, Florida with former Alabama teammates Bud Cauley and Tom Lovelady, both trying to achieve what Thomas has on the PGA and Web.com tours.
So what does Thomas love to do when he's off from golf? "Absolutely nothing," he says. "I can sit on a couch an entire day, watch movies, watch TV, hang by the pool. We will go out in the boat sometimes, do some fishing."
He remains a huge fan of Alabama football and all the other sports at the SEC powerhouse. His favorite athletes are Kobe Bryant and Sidney Crosby. He's a fan of the Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Golden State Warriors. He's played with Warrior superstar Steph Curry and teammate Andre Iguodala and is impressed with their golf games.
After achieving great success in AJGA tournaments in Kentucky, Thomas returns there to work with the Boys and Girls Club of Kentucky and to host the Justin Thomas Junior Championship.
"These young players have it all," says Ernie Els, who was joined by Thomas at the annual Cigar Aficionado/Wine Spectator Els for Autism Pro-Am in March. "They are talented, smart, good people," Els says. "They know how to give back. Justin is playing in my event and I really appreciate how this young man gives back. With players like Justin and Jordan, and there are a lot of others, too, the game is in good hands."
Thomas noted at the Honda Classic about how much confidence he sees in the walk of Dustin Johnson and Rory Mcllroy, who have both held the crown of No. 1 player in the world, and how they exude confidence and a winning attitude. With his multiple Tour wins and a 59 in his pocket, Justin Thomas can walk the walk, talk the talk and plant a flagstick on the summit of the game.
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