All in the family: 'A moment we'll never forget'
Justin Thomas, from a family of PGA club pros, wins his first major at the PGA Championship
August 13, 2017
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Best shots of Round 4 from PGA Championship
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Justin Thomas, the progeny of PGA of America professionals, induced chaos on the usually genteel grounds of Quail Hollow with a heroic finish to the 99th PGA Championship.
Quail Hollow takes cues from another course in the southeastern United States, one that hosts the year’s first major on an annual basis. It is a club that prides itself on pristine conditioning and affluent elegance.
But that was not the atmosphere late Sunday afternoon, as Thomas charged to his first major championship, winning in the way that we love to see our champions crowned. He earned it.
Quail Hollow’s old-money vibe was replaced by pandemonium. Pastel-clad patrons showed little regard for gallery ropes and spectator walkways as they ran through the muddy rough in their pursuit of the soon-to-be PGA champion.
Thomas, a member of the popular SB2K17 crew and now a five-time PGA TOUR winner at age 24, is a champion for a Snapchat generation, many of whom loudly called him by his initials as he played Sunday’s final holes. “Let’s go JT!” was the most common cheer from the loudest gallery members among the thousands who crowded around Quail Hollow’s closing holes. They chanted those same initials as he walked toward the final green, with Wanamaker Trophy all but in hand. The environment had to remind the Alabama alum of being back in an SEC stadium, watching one of Nick Saban's teams in a tight game on a Saturday afternoon.
The fans watched Thomas chip-in for birdie at the 13th hole – “That was probably the most berserk I’ve ever gone on the golf course,” he said – execute a difficult up-and-down from a greenside bunker at 16 and then hit one of the best shots of his career, a 214-yard 7-iron, at the long, water-lined 17th. He stared the ball down as it flew toward the green, then twirled his club before stoically extending his left arm palm-down, asking the ball to stay close to the hole. His 15-foot birdie putt made the 18th hole a formality.
Justin Thomas' spectacular chip-in birdie at PGA Championship
Thomas shot a final-round 68 to finish at 8-under 276 (73-66-69-68), two shots ahead of Francesco Molinari (67), Patrick Reed (67) and Louis Oosthuizen (70).
Thomas now has four wins this season, shot a 59 at the Sony Open in Hawaii and broke a U.S. Open record with his 9-under 63 at Erin Hills. He stands second in the FedExCup a week before the FedExCup Playoffs begin. He will represent the United States for the first time as a pro at this year’s Presidents Cup, as well.
Thomas joins a select list of players since 1960 to win four tournaments, including a major, in a single season at 24 years old or under: Jack Nicklaus (1963), Tiger Woods (1999, 2000), Rory McIlroy (2012) and Jordan Spieth (2015).
This success has been nearly two decades in the making. Thomas’ father, Mike, has been the head professional at Harmony Landing Golf Club in Goshen, Kentucky, since 1990, three years before Justin was born. At 2 years old, Justin would say, “Bag of balls,” when he wanted to head to the driving range, Mike said. The members allowed the head pro’s son to have free reign of the facilities, and Justin took full advantage.
Mike remembers that Justin was around 5 years old when he first said that he wanted to win a major. No one will be picky about which one they win first, but this one is especially appropriate. Justin’s grandfather, Paul, and father, Mike, are longtime PGA of America professionals.
“The PGA has a special place in my heart,” Justin said. “It’s just a great win for the family, and it’s a moment we’ll never forget.”
Thomas nearly won this year’s U.S. Open, vaulting into contention with that historic third round that pulled him within one shot of the lead. He made bogey on three of Sunday’s first five holes, though, and shot a 75. That day may have set the stage for this one, when Justin dominated down the stretch.
Justin Thomas: Growing up in golf
He is an emotional player, and it’s easy to become impatient when you’ve accomplished so much at an early age but still have a peer, longtime friend Jordan Spieth, who is outpacing you. “Frustration probably isn't the right word,” he said about Spieth’s success. “Jealousy definitely is.” Thomas flew home with Spieth from last month’s Open Championship, posting video of Spieth’s celebration with the Claret Jug to Snapchat.
Thomas’ career has been overshadowed by Spieth’s historic achievements, but Thomas has been well ahead of the curve, as well. So much early success can cause self-induced pressure, which is why ‘patience’ has been a word that Thomas’ camp has preached a lot recently.
“He’s very fiery, he’s very emotional and he’s very aggressive,” Mike Thomas said. “When you’re that way and it doesn’t work out, it can go the other direction pretty quick. He’s 24. He’s going to get more mature. He showed a lot of maturity this week.”
Justin, who wore pants in junior tournaments because he knew emulating the pros was the best way to prepare to play alongside them, made his first PGA TOUR cut at age 16 and was college golf’s player of the year as a freshman at Alabama. He turned pro at 20 and needed just one Web.com Tour season to graduate to the PGA TOUR. His first PGA TOUR victory, at the 2015 CIMB Classic, came at age 22.
Erin Hills was the next step in his progression, his first taste of contention in a major championship.
“Winning anything is hard. Handling yourself in that moment, it’s all a learning experience,” Mike Thomas said. “A major, you don’t know how you’re going to do there. He did pretty good.
“I could see it in his eyes early on in (Sunday’s) round. His body language was like, ‘I’m OK.’”
The evening before the PGA’s final round, Justin headed to the range to fix an off-kilter swing that had forced him to grind for his 2-under 69. Considering the state of his swing that day, and the score he got out of it, he said it may have been the week’s most important round.
His alignment, one of golf’s fundamentals that Mike has stressed since their first lessons, was off. Saturday evening’s session got Justin back in the proper address position from which to attack the final round. Justin was confident enough in his chances that he told his girlfriend to change her Sunday evening flight so she wouldn’t miss the potential celebration.
“I just had an unbelievable calmness throughout the week, throughout the day,” Justin said. “I truly felt like I was going to win.”
The victory comes at a tournament that has had a large impact on his career. The 2000 PGA in his home state of Kentucky was the first tournament he remembers attending. Mike’s position as a past president of the Kentucky PGA gave the family access to the clubhouse, where a 7-year-old Justin watched Tiger Woods outduel Bob May.
Justin got Jack Nicklaus’ autograph that week. When he told classmates that he got the signature of golf’s greatest player, they assumed he meant Woods, who’d just won his third consecutive major at Valhalla. Justin may have been in elementary school, but he knew enough golf history to know Nicklaus was golf’s all-time major winner.
“Just a typical golf nut, from a golf family,” he said.
Mike was on the PGA of America’s Board of Directors from 2007 to 2010. The position allowed him to be a starter at the PGA Championship and scorer at the Ryder Cup. Mike represented the PGA at the 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales while Justin competed for the U.S. at the Junior Ryder Cup.
Mike’s father Paul was the head professional at Zanesville (Ohio) Country Club for more than a quarter-century, at a time when competing was a large part of the pro’s job description. He played in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont and once was paired with Arnold Palmer in a PGA TOUR Champions event.
Paul got started in golf “the way we all did in those days.” He was 9 or 10 years old when he began caddying at the public Avon Fields Golf Course in Cincinnati, then began working as a club professional.
“His dad nor I really pushed (Justin),” Paul Thomas said in a 2015 interview with PGATOUR.COM. “We more or less answered questions. I would say the most help I ever gave him was playing with him and talking to him.”
Mike said that he taught Justin, “very little. I always did teach him very little. I told him when he was 8 or 10 years old, ‘You know where I’m at if you need help, but if I’m teaching I may only have 5 minutes to give you.’”
They competed early and often, and passionately wanted to beat each other. An assistant pro or Justin’s mom, Jani, would watch the pro shop in the late afternoon so Mike could play some holes with his son. The stakes? $1.
“I wanted to beat him and he wanted to beat me,” Justin said. “It was pretty heated out there. And I'm a pretty sore loser, so I did not handle it well when I lost and had to give up a dollar.
“It probably came from my dad’s pocket anyway.”
More important than the golf lessons were the support of parents who “treated me the same whether I shot 66 or 76,” Justin said.
His father’s best advice? It didn’t have to do with the golf swing.
“Just enjoy it,” Justin said. “It’s so cliché but he didn’t mean just golf. Whatever I decided to be, … just enjoy it.”
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