All in the family: Thomas' golfing roots trace back to his grandfather
February 07, 2021
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Justin Thomas' emotional win at WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in August of 2018 after Justin Thomas' win at Firestone Country Club.
Nearly eight decades ago, a young boy trounced through the woods in search of work. Neither of his parents played golf, but this son of an auto mechanic had heard that caddying could be a good source of extra income.
It was 4 miles from his house to Avon Fields Golf Course in Cincinnati, Ohio. He made the commute on foot.
“I didn’t mind the walk over in the morning, but the walk home in the dark was spooky,” Paul Thomas said. He punctuates this sentence with a laugh, an acknowledgement that this scene – a 10-year-old boy walking through dark woods on the way home from work – is a remnant of a bygone era.
Paul didn’t have his own golf clubs, so he played his first rounds with the rental sets available at Avon Fields. The course let caddies play on Mondays. He remembers winning the caddie championship a few years later in the pouring rain.
These were the humble beginnings of a golfing genealogy that produced one of today’s top players. Paul Thomas begat Mike Thomas who begat Justin Thomas, the winner of the 2017 FedExCup and the defending champion at this week’s PGA Championship.
Paul Thomas turned pro as a teenager, but not for the same reasons his grandson made a similar move at age 20. Justin was a phenom who’d prepared his entire life for the pro ranks. Paul left school early to make a living.
“I was forced out (of school) because of finances, and that was the first opportunity at halfway decent employment,” Paul said. “I know it sure didn’t pay much in those days.”
Paul was a lifelong club pro, but also an accomplished player who competed in the same events as Palmer, Nicklaus and Hogan. Before Justin Thomas won golf’s richest prize, Paul would regale him with tales from professional golf’s hardscrabble days. Hearing about his grandfather’s brushes with the game’s greats stoked Justin’s passion for the game.
“He’s told me the same stories a million times, but I never tell him to stop,” Justin said. “I keep all his voicemails.”
His grandparents’ presence behind the 18th green was the reason Justin got emotional before hitting the final putt of his four-stroke victory at last week’s World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. Paul and Phyllis Thomas had never been on-hand for one of their grandson’s nine PGA TOUR victories.
Paul enjoyed ice cream for breakfast in player dining before watching Justin conquer the same Firestone course where he played the PGA Championship in 1960. Paul made the cut with a second-round 72 that even bested the great Ben Hogan by a stroke.
As the courses have gotten longer and the crowds have grown larger, it’s become harder for Paul and Phyllis to watch their grandson play golf. They follow closely from their home in Columbus, Ohio, though.
Paul was one of the first to call Justin after he won last year’s PGA at Quail Hollow. Paul felt the tension when Justin stepped to the tee at the watery par-3 17th and celebrated when his grandson’s 214-yard 7-iron stopped within 2 feet of the hole. “He stood up there like a man and just staked it,” Paul said.
Paul could appreciate such a shot because he grew up in an era that demanded toughness. He took a crack at the TOUR as a 25-year-old in 1957, back when professional golf was still gaining traction and players caravanned across the country to play for pittance.
Paul Thomas (center) stands next to his son Mike and grandson Justin. (Submitted photo)
“I wasn’t nowhere near good enough. I was just scraping it together, anyway,” Paul said. “The TOUR was just getting organized. It was nothing like it is today. You’d enter one tournament from the last one.”
Paul served as an assistant pro at several clubs before becoming the head professional at Ohio’s Zanesville Country Club in 1963. He was 31 years old, and already had been a professional for 13 years.
He held the post for more than a quarter-century while remaining one of the top players in the Central Ohio PGA. He played with Arnold Palmer on the PGA TOUR Champions, made the cut in three U.S. Senior Opens and even beat former U.S. Open champion Tommy Bolt in an 18-hole exhibition.
Paul was an old-school instructor – “I don’t believe in theory because no two people are the same,” he said – whose students included two future LPGA Tour winners, Tammie Green and Michele Redman, and Mike Thomas, the second-oldest of his four sons.
Green, whose seven wins included one major, the 1989 du Maurier, lists Paul as the biggest influence on her career. Mike Thomas was a good amateur and an all-Ohio Valley Conference honoree at Morehead State before following his father into the club pro ranks.
Mike, too, enjoyed a lengthy tenure at one club, Harmony Landing Country Club outside of Louisville, and Justin reaped the benefits. The members were supportive of their head pro’s son, allowing him full use of the course and practice facility.
“You could tell when he was 7, 8, 9, 10 years old, he had something. You could tell that there was a big possibility there,” Paul said. “I remember telling him a long time ago that, as well as he drives the ball, don’t spend your time hitting those irons. Get out there and hit the sand wedge and the pitching wedge.”
The Thomas men all have strong short games. The putter was one of the strongest clubs in Paul’s bag. Mike was influenced by his father’s devotion to that aspect of the game, and he enjoyed practicing shots that he could see go in the hole. And Justin followed his father to the chipping green, a constant site of competition between three generations of Thomas men.
Paul won’t take credit for his grandson’s success, though.
“I would say the most help I ever gave him was playing with him and talking to him,” he said. “His dad is his only teacher, and that’s the way it should be.”
Paul’s stories “influenced Justin’s love and passion” for the game, Mike said. Paul’s success as a player helped him teach course management and the art of playing the game.
The older Thomases could be overly technical, though, so Mike tried to keep his instruction of Justin simple, focusing on the fundamentals. And after struggling to meet his father’s high standards, Mike also wanted to ensure his son had fun on the course.
“My dad will be the first to tell you that he was pretty hard on me,” Mike Thomas said. “He had fun, but when it came to competition he was hard on himself. He was hard on himself, so he was hard on me.
“That was a different era. Those guys truly did dig it out of the dirt.”
Paul was born in 1931 in Ashland, Kentucky, a steel town on the border of West Virginia, but his family moved to Cincinnati when he was 5. Two of his early assistant-pro jobs took him to York, Pennsylvania, and Tequesta, Florida, where he worked for Ohio native and established PGA TOUR winner Dow Finsterwald at Tequesta Golf Club. Tequesta is a short distance from Jupiter, where Justin Thomas and a parade of other PGA TOUR players now live.
In 1958, Paul returned to Cincinnati to work as an assistant pro at Western Hills Country Club. He quickly established himself as one of the state’s top players. He won that year’s Southern Ohio PGA Championship to qualify for the PGA Championship. He never made it to the national championship, though.
Paul was declared ineligible because his membership to his new PGA section hadn’t yet transferred. Finsterwald, his old boss, won with a final-round 67, finishing two shots ahead of Billy Casper. Paul’s favorite player, Sam Snead, finished third.
There would be other PGA Championship chances earned, however. Paul played at Firestone CC in 1960 and Olympia Fields in ’61, and he also competed in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
He missed the 54-hole cut at Firestone but had good company: Hogan, weeks after nearly winning his fifth U.S. Open, also failed to qualify for the final round.
Thomas remained a stalwart in his PGA section, twice winning the Central Ohio PGA Championship. His best success came in his 40s and 50s; he finished T15 in the 1983 U.S. Senior Open and played with Palmer in the final round of the Citizens Union Senior Golf Classic in Lexington, Kentucky. Thomas trailed Palmer by just a stroke entering the final round, but shot a 77 to Palmer’s 67. Those numbers have long since faded. The memory hasn’t.
Paul, 86, still plays a handful of times per week and gives the occasional lesson. He’s shot his age every year since turning 64. And, of course, he watches his grandson succeed in the family trade.
“After he showed that he was going to make it, I told him, ‘Only you can screw this thing up. It’s up to you to make something out of yourself,’” Paul said. “And he sure did.”