One of golf’s brightest prospects had a taste of that winning feeling and wants more, writes WADE PRETORIUS.
Justin Thomas was always going to be a star. Only 1.7m tall? No problem. Only 66kg? No problem. The underachiever among his peers? No problem. Justin Thomas was always going to be a star.
He has found the perfect recipe to transcend his smaller stature, and will never be classed in the ‘short but straight’ category. Not in the slightest, as his numbers off the tee stack up to even the heaviest of hitters on Tour, with commentators regularly at a loss for words when he bombs a drive of 400-plus yards.
Of course, he has spent the required time lifting weights – no elite professional of his size hasn’t – but the key to his ability to compete with Dustin Johnson, Gary Woodland and co lies in the incredible clubhead speed he generates. This, combined with a pure technique, allows him to free his arms to release through impact and launch the ball as high in the air as anyone in the modern game.
The University of Alabama alumni is the son of Mike Thomas, a club pro at Harmony Landing, and the grandson of Paul Thomas, a golfer with enough talent to make the field at the 1962 US Open at Oakmont. The Thomas family have golf in their blood and own the proud record of all three acing the 16th hole at Harmony, something the youngest Thomas did, aged six with a cut-down driver. But it was while the Kentucky-born star was playing for Alabama’s Crimson Tide that he gained the life experience that set him up to compete among the best in the world.
One gets the sense that Thomas is always learning, whether it is on the course, talking to his grandfather, remembering words from his college football coach or playing alongside his friends, who just happen to be some of the finest players on the planet.
And it is one of these fine players who believes Thomas’ win at the SBS Tournament of Champions in January could spell trouble for those eyeing the millions of dollars of prize money at stake in the PGA Tour professionals.
‘Yeah, I think the floodgates might be opening for him,’ said Jordan Spieth, himself a multiple Major winner and at home in the top 10 of the World Ranking.
‘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, but he’s dialling back a bit now and hitting a trusty 2-iron out there. He can still hit 285 yards, you know, with a little bit of roll. I am really excited for him. It’s awesome to see.
‘He’s going to be tough to beat next week, too.’
Perhaps it was an off-the-cuff remark by Spieth, but it turned out to be extremely accurate, as his friend made it two from two at the Sony Open in spectacular fashion.
‘I think it drove me a lot,’ said Thomas, referring to his battle to reach the next level. ‘It’s weird, I mean, some of my good friends … I’m trying to think how I’m going to word this. I wasn’t mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating seeing some friends and peers my age do well. Not because I wasn’t cheering for them, but because I felt 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.’
Thomas has always relied on friends for motivation and occasionally for protection too. He recalls an incident from a frat party that he later used as an example to give advice to college golfers, particularly those who have similar frames as him and a tendency to be sharp wits. His advice? ‘Get the football and basketball players on your side.’
At this party, Thomas found himself in a verbal battle that looked like it was going south until his friend and his friend’s brother stepped in. They just happened to be on the basketball team and stood at a combined height of 4m. Problem solved.
In a similar fashion, a week after his season-opening win, Thomas found himself bunkered off the tee on the 9th hole during the opening round of the Sony Open. Chasing the magical 59 mark, he had the good fortune that friend Daniel Berger was in the same position.
‘The ball was sitting really good, and it felt like I could get a 6- or 7-iron on it and get it short of the green. And then I heard Berger’s caddie say 4-iron for them,’ said Thomas, reflecting on a career-changing moment. ‘I was like, man, can I hit it on the green? I’m like,
I guess I can, I don’t know.’
What happened next? Almost what you would predict from a player with two wins and four top-five finishes in as many starts. Thomas found himself 15ft from the cup after having ‘flushed’ a 5-iron that cleared the lip and travelled almost in slow motion until it rested on the green, leaving him with a putt he duly converted. Without Berger’s intervention, there’s a chance he may not have joined the ’59 club’, with the honour of playing fewer competitive rounds than those whose membership cards were issued before him.
A quick scroll through Thomas’ active social media profiles will tell you he is a pretty normal guy off the course. He likes to binge-watch series, he was a founding member of golf’s now infamous ‘SB2K16’ crew and is a massive football fan. This led to a meeting with University of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who plays a significant role in how he plays golf, even if he had to learn the hard way.
Saban often stresses the importance of ‘playing our game’, which Thomas didn’t do at the Northern Trust Open in 2015. Heading into the weekend, he figured he needed to go low over the final two rounds to win, and played ‘a little outside what was realistic’. A terrible weekend followed as he shot 75-75 to finish T41. Thomas quickly took coach Saban’s lesson on board and is a much better player for it.
He hates ‘bad golf’ but recalls his grandfather’s saying that, ‘some days it’s chickens, and some days it’s feathers’, which Thomas explains as ‘no matter how good you get, you can’t be at your best all the time. The nature of the game is that you’ll run hot and cold, and the ball will take funny bounces.’
He tries to bear that in mind, but it can be hard.
Small in stature he may be, but his dreams are big, as he seeks another return to the winner’s circle, and then another win. One of the hottest players in the world, Thomas is chasing after his biggest dream: a win at The Masters, on a course he describes as ‘perfect’ for him.
– Youngest to shoot 59
– Holds the PGA Tour records for lowest 36-hole, 54-hole and 72-hole scores
– Joins Ernie Els as the only player to win the Hawaii double, but Thomas’ combined score of -49 is two better than Els’
tally in 2003
– Third player in three decades to win back to back at 23 or younger, joining Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy
– First player since Johnny Miller in 1975 with three wins by three or more shots in the first five events of a season
– This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine