Serving Kentucky's Schools and Student Athletes Since 1917

Not even his dad could have predicted Justin Thomas’ rapid rise to stardom

September 30, 2019 FieldsColumn

Print

Justin Thomas got a hug from his dad after winning in Hawaii in 2017. (Getty Images)

BY MIKE FIELDS

When Justin Thomas won the KHSAA state golf title in 2009, could anyone have predicted that just 10 years later he would be regarded as one the best players on the planet?

He’s already won 10 times on the PGA TOUR, including a PGA Championship, a FedEx Cup title and a WGC event, and has spent time ranked No. 1 in the world.

He’s also earned more than $30 million.

This golf ball is a memento from Justin Thomas’ 2009 KHSAA state title. It’s one of dozens of golf balls on display at Harmony Landing Country Club documenting Thomas’ career victories.

And he’s only 26.

Could anybody have looked into a crystal ball and seen this kind of success for Thomas when he was winning the state high school title as a 16-year-old junior at St. Xavier?

“No way, no way,” said Mike Thomas, Justin’s dad, and the head pro at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen.

“So many members of the club and people in the Louisville community would always forecast these great things about Justin. Everybody was telling me that it was going to happen. But I was like, I do this for a living and I didn’t know it was going to happen.”

On display in the Harmony Landing pro shop are more than 11 dozen golf balls, each one inscribed with the details of a tournament won by Thomas. They date back to 2001 when, as an 8-year-old, he won his first junior event while playing in the 12-and-under division.

The most recent addition to the collection is a ball Thomas used on his way to the BMW Championship just a few months ago. It was his 136th career victory.

Mike Thomas was recently asked by somebody looking at the rows of Titleists, which of the golf balls signified the moment he knew his son was on to something special?

“I pointed to his first PGA TOUR win (the 2015 CIMB Classic in Malaysia),” Thomas said. “Because how do you know you’re going to make it until you really make it?

“When he won in Malaysia, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he really did it!’ But we didn’t know if it was going to be his only TOUR win or one of many. Nobody knows what’s going to happen along the way. It looked like he was going to have success when he did well on the Web.com, but there are a lot of really good players that can’t get off that tour.”

This golf ball is from Justin Thomas’ first tournament win as an 8-year-old in 2001.

Daniel Utley, who was Justin’s coach at St. X, agreed that it’s impossible to predict with any certainty anybody’s rise to stardom in golf. But he noted that Justin’s “game was always on that path.”

Before Utley coached Thomas at St. X, he had been an assistant coach at Kentucky when J.B. Holmes played for the Cats.

After leaving UK, Holmes went out and won almost immediately on the PGA TOUR, taking the Phoenix Open.

But even then, Utley thought that Thomas, an underclassman at St. X, was already better than Holmes.

“It was nothing against J.B. because he was phenomenal,” Utley said. “But I felt Justin was already a better player because where he had grown to mentally, and the whole rounded package of his game.”

Thomas had made the cut in the PGA TOUR’s Wyndham Championship a couple of months before the 2009 KHSAA state tournament, so he could have been forgiven if he hadn’t been totally invested in a high school event.

But whenever Thomas has a club in his hand, his competitive juices start pumping. Utley said that’s one of his defining strengths.

“When Justin’s standing over a shot, he is so focused and into that shot, that it doesn’t matter if it’s with me in practice, or at Augusta National on the 18th hole during the Masters, or playing a 2 Nassau against his dad, that 7-iron gets the same attention.

“That focus, that routine, that mission to hit the best golf shot you can hit at that moment, that doesn’t change with the scenario.”

Mike Thomas said that even though his son had played on much bigger stages, winning a state high school title was “still a big accomplishment. That’s a box you have to check.”

Justin Thomas won the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow.

History tells us that. Gay Brewer, Frank Beard, Bobby Nichols and J.B. Holmes were state high school champs, too.

Now that his son has established himself as a star on the PGA TOUR, Mike Thomas can appreciate what it takes to succeed on the highest level of the sport.

“You have to have an extreme self-confidence,” he said. “You cannot have any self-doubt because there are so many great players out here.

“You have to have strong mechanics that are going to hold up under pressure all throughout your game, whether it’s a key chip shot at a key moment, or a key putt at a key moment, or a key drive on a tough driving hole coming down the stretch.

“The only ingredient Justin was missing for a while was patience, so that’s all we harped on for three or four years. We kept telling him, ‘You’ve got to have the smartest decision-making and the best patience on the golf course, and that’s what’s going to get you through the day.’ And he’s bought into that.”

Thomas is already among the winningest Kentuckians to ever play on the PGA TOUR. Kenny Perry won 14 times, followed by Nichols (12,) Beard (11) and Brewer (10).

When Thomas captured the 2017 PGA Championship, he joined Nichols (1964 PGA) and Brewer (1967 Masters) as the only major champs hailing from the Bluegrass State.

Would it be crazy to predict that Thomas will eventually become the most accomplished golfer the state has ever produced?

Utley didn’t want to even acknowledge such a suggestion.

“I’ll take a page out of Nick Saban’s playbook and say that’s rat poison,” Utley said.

Saban, Alabama’s football coach, once said that the media’s fawning over his team was like rat poison, that his players needed to listen to him instead of people telling them how good they were.

“Let’s talk about Justin’s legacy when he’s retired,” Utley said. “Hopefully, that’s where his mindset is. He’s more into the process of how to be great rather than how great am I?

“Let’s not worry about that rat poison.”

Print