The fabulous dad life of Mike Thomas
Justin’s dad on what it’s like to be the father of one of the biggest stars on the PGA TOUR
June 16, 2020
By Cameron Morfit , PGATOUR.COM
Mike Thomas travels with knitting needles and stretchy string.
Before every round his son Justin plays on the PGA TOUR, Mike, a 60-year-old PGA teaching professional at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Kentucky, stakes out the practice green. He eyes the various hole locations, finds a place to stick two strung needles in the ground (an alignment drill) and waits. When Justin comes out he finds his father and sets up at those knitting needles to stroke putts. Sometimes they chat, sometimes they don’t, and then Justin and his caddie Jimmy Johnson head to the tee.
RELATED: Part 2 of Mike Thomas Q&A
This will happen each tournament day until it’s over, whereupon they’ll both pack up and head to the next town, or go home to their respective homes – Jupiter, Florida, for Justin, and Goshen, just outside Louisville, for dad/coach Mike. (He and his wife Jani recently got a place in South Florida, as well.) He’s not just the father of a world-class golfer, he’s also the son of one – Paul Thomas, a lifelong teaching pro in Ohio who made the cut in the 1960 PGA Championship and played on the PGA TOUR Champions.
As we inch toward Father's Day, Mike Thomas seems to be living the dad dream. What’s it really like? We caught up with him three days in a row as he set up those knitting needles. Herewith, an edited version of those interviews, and his thoughts on being Justin’s dad.
Everybody was telling us what he was going to accomplish. ‘He's going to play the TOUR.’ I'm like, ‘How do you know that? He may quit playing next year.’ I mean, he was accomplished at every level he went to, but some of the best junior golfers in the country and even the world have struggled on TOUR. So there was no guarantee.
Justin had an incredible drive. He was at the course eight to 10 hours a day. One time, he was probably 11 or something. I go, ‘Justin, why don't you stay home tomorrow and just play some basketball in the backyard with some of your buddies or go play some video games? Just be an 11-year-old, take a day off.’ He goes, ‘I might do that, I'm kind of tired, my hand is hurting.’ About 9:30 the next morning I'm out there teaching and I see him down there hitting balls. I get done with my lesson and I say, ‘I guess that didn't work out very good.’ He goes, ‘I was bored.’ He was driven to do better than he did the day before. It's not that it came easy to him, but he just didn't have a complex motion that could get out of whack real bad. My swing is the opposite. I'm inside out and flip it over. I never knew what I was going to have any day. Now, I'm a lot better today, swing‑wise, but I don't score as well because of all the short game stuff and distance that I've lost and just from inactivity.
My dad is 88, man. He's dinking it out there about 80 yards. My dad, he dug it out of the dirt. That was back in the day when he could make it work with anything. He was a grinder. He played and practiced every single day. He was that old‑school player that was a club pro. He was a club pro for 25 or 28 years in Ohio, and it was important to play golf with your members. He played golf with them all the time, always gambling, you know, that's what you did if you were a good player. It's different now than it used to be.
With Justin I tried to keep it fun. It would be seven at night, and we’d play three holes and we'd gamble. If he was 8 years old we'd play for a dollar, and I was giving him s--- and he was giving me s---. But he liked it. My dad did not keep it fun. He made it pretty difficult, which he admits to now. I told myself, I'm never going to do that to Justin. I didn't care whether he played golf or not; I just made an oath to myself that I'm going to be his friend, not his father. So we goofed off, played cards, razzed each other and ribbed each other. If I had to be a parent about something, I would, but I made sure that we were buddies first.
My dad and I were both hard on each other. I mean, he was hard on himself, I was hard on myself, when I was playing competitively. So I spent a lot of time making sure Justin wasn't. I think better players by nature are hard on themselves; that's how they got where they are. But there's a fine line; take some credit for some good things that you did.
My dad was a great player. I always tell everybody it skipped a generation. He was Player of the Year in the Southern Ohio section, golly, 10, 12 times. I probably won eight or 10 section events, played in the CPC one year, the national PGA championship for club pros. But most of my highlights in golf center around Justin. I underachieved, for sure.
I teach probably 40 kids at Harmony. I’ll leave here Sunday night and go to Florida for a day because my wife is there. Tuesday morning I'll go home to Kentucky, and then I'll be teaching every day all day long, even in February when it’s still cold. These kids don't care.
I've been there 31 years, 27 years maybe head pro. I’m Emeritus now because about four years ago in Phoenix, I was traveling to maybe eight events a year, and I said to Justin, ‘Am I out here too much? Not enough? Just right?’ He goes, ‘I'd like you out here a lot more.’ I'm like, ooh, a lot more. So I went back to the club and said, ‘Justin comes first,’ and the club has been extremely supportive. I love to work. I’m the first one there and the last to leave.
I still pay all Justin's bills, handle tons of his correspondence, a lot of his charity work. We run a huge AJGA event at our club, the Justin Thomas Junior Championship, which is really a year‑long process getting sponsors and everything. I played two rounds of golf last year.
We played twice in Las Vegas for my wife’s surprise 60th birthday a couple days before L.A. (the Genesis Invitational) so we had to play – or Justin had to, which gave me a license to play, and actually I played pretty good out there. We played Shadow Creek and The Summit Club. I think I was 1‑over one day and then I think we played 14 holes the next day because it was really nasty out, and I think I was about even that day, but it was – the wind was howling and everything, so that was really good.
When the PGA TOUR wanted to do some pieces on us a couple years ago and asked if I had any footage, I go, you know, lucky for me, I was using video long before other people were using video and teaching. I saw someone doing it, and I'm like, wow, I've got to do this, so I had all these fancy cameras at a very early stage of video and teaching, so when we went out to play, I'd video it. Even when he was 3 years old, I'd video it.
I spent some time around Davis Love – Davis Love, Jr., I guess it is – when I was an assistant in Pittsburgh. I like a lot about Butch Harmon. I'm a big fan of the people that are old school. So when I read some of these things that teachers are talking about, I'm like, I'm not sure I even understand that. I've lost students because they want more information, and my stock line is golf is already hard, it's my job to make it easier. Because when you're standing out there on 17 tee to a back hole location over water, are you going to be thinking about P1 coming down or P3 on the top? That's “Golfing Machine” stuff. Or are you just going to visualize your shot and let your athletic abilities take over and do what you were trained to do? That's kind of how Justin plays. That's how I teach.
Justin Thomas and his dad talk about their unique relationship
As a kid Justin swung in and down on it quite a bit. He does not do that anymore. His lines always got off when he was little, and we still keep an eye on that today – today on the range we're going to be looking at his lines. He'd just get cock-eyed where his feet would be going over there and his hips would be going over there or vice versa.
He played baseball until he was 7 or 8 and traveling too much with golf. Basketball and soccer in the winter. One of the biggest fights I got in with my wife, we were playing like in a sixth-grade basketball game, you'd stay for the seventh- and eighth-grade games. I'm like, ‘This is Justin's last year. He's never going to be able to do what those guys do.’ It's night and day because that seventh and eighth grader now had been to 20 basketball camps. Justin had been to zero. Jani goes, ‘He's going to be better a year from now.’ I go, ‘Jani, he sucks.’ I said that. She goes, ‘I can't believe you'd say that about your own son.’ I go, ‘I love him, but compared to these guys he's got no chance.’ Now, he's athletic enough, he'll put it up, but he doesn't have the skill set to bounce a pass or to go – he would not go in there where people were inside. I'm like, ‘He's never going to be able to do that.’
Justin laughs about this. I think seventh grade was the year when you try out and they put your name on the door and you go over at 9 o’clock at night for the final cut. I remember thinking, man, he's got no shot. You don't want to discourage him and say he can't do it, but this is what's coming. He's like, well, I don't know. And we go over there and his name is not on that door, and you don't see his name, and you're looking at it again – still not there. You go, ‘OK, let's go, you're done.’ But I'll tell you what: Nobody out on that court is going to hit a 3‑wood to a tucked pin over water like he is.
He was tiny until he was a junior, and if you've ever seen any of his pictures when he won the FootJoy invitational in Greensboro at 15, he was hitting hybrids and woods into greens.
I’m a realist. So many golf parents are like, ‘We really want to work toward the AJGA,’ and I'll tell them, ‘Your child hasn't broken the top 15 in the Pepsi Junior Tour in Louisville yet. Let's stay here.’ They go, ‘We're going to do a bunch of AJGA qualifiers this year.’ I go, ‘That's a huge mistake.’ ‘Well, he's got the talent.’ I go, ‘No, he doesn't. Now, he will, but right now he doesn't, and you want to send him out there and continue to beat him up, he's going to quit.’ I've lost parents and kids because of that, but it's like, here's the reality. My goal is to make them better, but if they don't want to do what I want to do, I can't.
I'm at 90, 95 percent of his events. It's a fabulous life for one reason: You get to watch your child do something they have a passion for. That is kind of – that's the only reason. If you go and watch your son do surgery all the time, or win legal cases, the joy of any parent or father is to watch your child, whether it's a girl or boy, have a passion for something.
I mostly fly commercial. Like if I'm in the right place where he's going to hop to the next event, I'll go with him. There's times where he'll hop to the next event and doesn't have room on the plane. But yeah, I do travel some with him, but probably 80, 90% of my travel is commercial, which as you know, those airports and those layovers …
Being out here has afforded me some things that I would never get to do if I wasn't Justin Thomas's father. At the (Sony Open in Hawaii), we were on the battleship USS Abraham Lincoln which just came into port for six months. The Admiral took us out there after we played in the pro‑am. Two years before that, he took us on I think it's called the USS Houston, a nuclear sub, which came into Pearl Harbor. Admiral Tom Fargo with the Navy – he’s a great guy. We played with him in a pro‑am three years ago, and we've just become friends with him since then. If Justin plays well this week, I'll hear from him, ‘Great playing,’ and I'll tell Tom, he's an inside-outer, I'm like, ‘Hey, you need to get those arms going across your body more, keep working on it.’
I meet a lot of celebrities and actors, which, I couldn't care less. But I met this Admiral, I'm like, wow, the stories that you have and the places that you've been and served our country.
At the BMW one year I did laps around the motor speedway at Indy – wouldn't have gotten to do that if it wasn't with Justin. We did five or six hot laps in an M3, and I think some in an M2. I'm thinking I'm going to get in a car with a guy and he’ll drive, but no; ‘Here's your car. Justin, here's your car. There's a radio in there, I'll be in front of you. If you're on my ass, I'm going to go faster. If I lose you, I'll slow down.’ It was one of the coolest things I've ever done. I did 140 down the straightaway. The first time on turn one, you're doing it at 40 or 50, and the guy is on the radio saying you can go faster. The car is not going to tip over, it's not going to slide. The next time you try it at 60. Next thing you know you're going through these curves at 80, like, this is nuts!
Jimmy (Johnson, Justin’s caddie) and I talk a lot. He caddied for Charles Howell III, Nick Price and Steve Stricker, and when he got on Justin's bag, the time that stands out was at Whistling Straits, at the PGA (in 2015). On the fourth or fifth hole, Justin is in the fairway bunker on the right. Nothing but crap between him and the green. He's got like 245. Big lip, big mound in front of him. He goes, ‘Do you like 5‑iron?’ Jimmy is like, ‘I like wedge right down there.’ Justin goes, ‘I can get over that mound. I can get there.’ Jimmy goes, ‘Why don't we hit a wedge down there.” Of course, Justin knocked it on the green, and Jimmy was like, I need to readjust my thinking here a little bit. He said no player he caddied for even saw that shot.
You have to be smart about it. I used to always tell Justin, and a lot of my kids that I teach, ‘I know you can hit this shot, but do you need to?’ That's the deciding factor.
I’ll be out here as long as Justin wants me. It is tiring. I can't see doing this when I'm 75 years old. I mean, I'm 60 now. It recharges me to get busy teaching when I'm home because I haven't seen those kids and I've missed them, and after 10 days or two weeks at home, it recharges me to get back on a plane and get back out on TOUR, so it works out.