Part 2: The fabulous dad life of Mike Thomas
June 17, 2020
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Justin Thomas has 12 PGA TOUR titles to his name, and along the way has also won the FedExCup and PGA Championship (both in 2017) and reached World No. 1. In three extended interviews, and just in time for Father's Day, we spoke to Mike Thomas to find out what it's like to be Justin’s dad. Yesterday, Mike spoke of the early years, being on TOUR while maintaining his teaching practice back in Kentucky and being the son of PGA professional Paul Thomas. Today, he addresses Justin's special relationships with Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Nick Saban and why this superstar will never forget the kids in his gallery.
RELATED: Part 1 of Mike Thomas Q&A
You have to be a good time manager on TOUR. Justin won once or twice, and right away media and people wanted to stop and talk, wanting his autograph or a picture. I think he's kind by nature. He's like me, he doesn't like to say no, and it's hard for him to walk by those, but he has gotten that discipline: I've got a job to do, I've got a schedule before I tee off, this is what I do. And he always makes up for it after the round. He'll always go find the kids.
I told him his rookie year, I go, ‘Don't ever forget that you were on the other side of that rope and what it meant for a player to fist bump you or make eye contact or throw you a ball. You have the power to just really make a kid's day.’ And he's always liked kids. When he was 12 years old he would play with a 6-year-old in the golf shop.
The sick kids definitely pull at us. If he comes off somewhere and there's a kid in a wheelchair he'll stop and shake his hand. Even during the round. I mean, I think a handicapped child is – if that doesn't get you, you're not alive. And we went to St. Jude's Hospital, first time we ever played Memphis when the WGC was there, and we went to St. Jude's, and man, that's hard. I love it, but that's hard for me.
My members or people out here always say, ‘Oh, you must be really proud of him. I'm like, I'm not proud at all how he plays, I'm proud of the person that he is. That means more as a parent. They're like, ‘Well, you've got to be happy he won a major.’ I'm happy for him, but my pride isn't based on the scores he shoots.
I never went to AJGA tournaments. I was just too busy as a head professional. I went to local junior tournaments when he was 8, 9, 10 years old. Once he started leaving Louisville, I didn't start watching him play a lot until he went to Alabama. I just said to myself, I'm not going to miss this college experience. I think I went to every college event he played in.
It’s a huge asset for me to be able to take different ideas and tools home to my students. I was floored when I first came out here. I knew people used some gadgets, but I was shocked that almost everybody used a gadget at some point in their practice. Alignment stick, a mirror, a putting gate, a string, Putting Tutor with the balls on it. My kids’ aim is often poor, so I’ll show them pictures of these guys (TOUR pros) on my phone, and I'm like, ‘Just pick a swing, and there will be a stick down there if he's not on the course. I go, ‘If one of the top players in the world is using a stick to make sure his alignment is good and you're just going to wing it, good luck with that.’ That hits home for them.
If you're going to hit five putts from one spot for 30 minutes, you could be aiming over here, your face pointing out here, and you've got enough hand‑eye coordination you're going to move that error to where they start going in. You're going to walk off going, I'm putting pretty good, and putt like crap on the course. That's because you only get one try. So my serious students practice with one ball, and every ball is judged. If we chip, putt, pitch, we don't hit multiple pitches to a 70‑yard target. We hit one to a 70, one to a 40, one to a 55, one to an 80 and then go back into that rotation, because on the course you don't get three tries to a 70‑yard target, you get one. Practice should replicate what happens on the course.
We use an alignment stick marked in foot increments with a Sharpie to create 20 putts from four to eight feet, coming from four different directions. You get one chance with each putt, and you've got to get a good score or start over. When you get down to you have four putts left and you've got to make two of them, you get nervous. I'll be like, ‘Are you feeling a little anxiety?’ Because that's the purpose of the drill; the more times you feel anxiety here and are successful, that anxiety is not going to be as strong out there on the golf course because you've felt it in your practice. We do the same thing with chipping.
So it's better practice, and what I always tell them, I go, ‘Would you sign up for hitting fewer balls, chipping fewer balls, putting fewer balls and getting better? They go, ‘Yeah.’ I go, ‘You think hitting five bags of balls is going to make you better?’ One bag of balls hit properly is going to make you better than five bags of balls. I would say any good coach does because you want to simulate your play. That's the goal. Like if we're hitting 7‑irons, one of them can't finish left of the target, one of them can't finish right. One of them has to be high, one of them low, because that's what you do on the course.
Justin has been over to the Nicklauses’ house a number of times to talk about Augusta, and when you get to this level how do you push yourself to be better, what did you do. I've told Mr. Nicklaus, I go, ‘You know, as a father, I'm impressed that you are willing to do that. You don't need to do that.’ It's pretty cool, and Barbara has always been good, as well.
Jani hauled his ass around forever. From 7 until he went to college. Even when he had his license, I don't think he really drove to tournaments. We were flying by then to most of the events because he kind of quit playing in Kentucky when he was 13 or 14, but they'd have to get a rental car. Or they’d make an eight or nine‑hour drive to a tournament because it was cheaper. She was his travel agent. Obviously she was a stay-at-home mom for a long time, but even when he was starting to play away, she was a sales rep, would sell glassware. Now she manages a lot of Justin's stuff. She's the president of his foundation. She's busy.
We've done a couple scholarships for kids in Kentucky, the Justin Thomas Junior Grant, for kids who have shown an ability to compete but don't have the funds to travel.
Justin Thomas and his dad talk about their unique relationship
We’ll go to Jupiter for Christmas and most of Jani's family comes down. We hang out for three or four days and try to play golf and just have Christmas down there, do dinners together.
He has somebody else that works with him – Matt Killen works with him on his putting, but I listen in to what they're talking about so I can monitor it, so on, so forth. It's simple things. We're just always checking his line and his ball position and his body movement. I mean, I can do that in the absence of Matt because Matt typically will leave on Wednesday evening or afternoon, and then I'm kind of monitoring what they've worked on. You know, most of it I think with him and a lot of these players with putting is just getting on a roll.
It's not just stroking it well. Your fundamentals have to be good, but a lot of it is mindset, and that's where I think I do a lot more of that than Matt. I always talk about the mindset of believing and staying patient. We always talk about that. We're like, you know you have a run in you, just wait, be patient, and that run will come.
It's wildly exceeded any expectation that we had of our son. If I told you he was going to dominate out here, I'd have been a lunatic. I was hoping he kept his card – the first year he had his card, in June I'm checking with his agent and they thought he had enough money to keep his card for next year, and I told Justin that I thought that was a big accomplishment. I said, ‘You've got a job next year, I think you're a lock for your card,’ and he was pissed. He's like, ‘I'm not out here to keep a card, I'm out here to win.’ If you ask him, he'd probably give himself a B- or C+. He wants to win all the time and he wants to win a lot of majors. So having a third or fourth does not fit his goal structure.
There's a really great video of Coach Saban, I think it was before an LSU game – you can Google, on YouTube go to Coach Saban ‘make 'em quit,’ and he's in the locker room talking to his team before the game, and part of his message was, ‘make them quit. That's what we do. That's our reputation. We make the other team quit. Make them quit.’ Justin plays that video all the time, so that's probably where he got that. He's just into Kobe and MJ and Saban. But when he won that playoff in Hawai'i, he'll enjoy his win, but he said he felt bad about that three‑putt – he didn't want (Xander Schauffele) to three‑putt. So he does have emotional nerve or whatever you call it towards the other player. When it's over. While he's playing – I think he got a lot of that from Tiger. Tiger was his idol growing up.
Tiger was starting to come back, and Justin would reach out to him, say, ‘Do you want to practice? Do you want to get some dinner? We're going to play at 11 if you want to join us tomorrow.’ He reached out to him, and I think the other thing, and I could be wrong, but I think the other thing is like the first time they were together, Tiger was giving Justin s--- and Justin threw it right back at him. I think Tiger enjoyed that. They're always at each other. I think that's made him young again, that he's got a kid that will mess with him.
Justin watched so many VHS and DVDs of Tiger's career, just would watch him nonstop, like literally every night. So he emulated a lot of what Tiger did. And I've told Tiger, ‘You know, as a father, I can't compliment you enough, your willingness to take him in and help him. I go, you didn't have to do that. You chose to do that, and that says something about you.’ I told Mr. Nicklaus that, too; ‘You didn't have to do that, and you chose to.’
Justin's rookie year on TOUR, he's playing those money games with Phil and those guys. He just didn't care. He was not in awe of these guys, and his first year, he missed the (TOUR Championship) by one spot. He was mad. He goes, I should be able to play bad and make the (TOUR Championship). I would say stuff like that's a pretty good accomplishment, and he would go, ‘That sucked. That was not an accomplishment, I failed in my goal.’ That's kind of the drive that makes him go.
He wants to be No. 1 and stay there. That's a commitment. That's a huge sacrifice of things that you don't get to go to and so on, so forth. He watches what he eats, works out religiously, practices smartly. He watches what he's doing a lot more now on his off weeks. He's more cognizant of, hey, I can't be doing this and that on my off week. He's doing the things that it takes, it's just hard competition in the top 10. Justin, he's serious about it.