"The main goal for me is to get myself in the hunt in the Majors" - Justin Thomas
Justin Thomas was born to play golf. His grandfather Paul slugged it out with Nicklaus and Palmer, while dad Mike has just completed his 25th year as head pro at Harmony Landing Country Club just outside Louisville, from where the golf- obsessed family hails.
Now 24, Thomas first picked up a golf club aged two - and he hasn’t stopped winning since. His next victory will be the 130th in his career and he remembers every one – so much so he keeps all his winning balls. He grew up playing junior golf with another up-and-coming kid called Jordan Spieth, and the pair have been friends since.
Thomas, though, has some catching up to do – Spieth has nine PGA Tour wins, including the two 2015 Masters and US Open. But Thomas is closing in fast after celebrating a hat-trick of early-season successes at the CIMB Classic, SBS Tournament of Champions and Sony Open.
His red-hot start to 2017 saw him soar into the world’s top 10 (he's current No. 13), and past the $10 million career earnings mark just three years after joining the pro ranks. He set a 72- hole scoring record at the Sony Open, and over a fortnight in Hawaii he was a sensational 49 under par. It was helped, of course, when he became the youngest player ever to shoot 59.
But this, he tells TG, is only the start. He is supremely confident more victories are within his grasp with the Majors very much at the summit of his hit list.
Can you explain your astonishing start to the 2017 PGA Tour season?
The biggest thing is confidence – I’ve a lot of belief in what I’m doing. I’m not doing anything great or crazy, I’m just playing smart and I’m driving it well and when I drive it well it makes everything easier with the short irons, giving me lots of birdie opportunities. Oh, and I’m putting pretty well, too. As I say, nothing crazy – just a bunch of things that I’m doing very well. That’s nice!
Did your successes surprise you?
I’m definitely not surprised by what happened. I expected I could do it. Though you can never say ‘oh, I’m going to have this many wins’ by a certain point. That kind of thing just happens, but I fully expected to win out here and win quickly. I didn’t win as much as I’d have liked to at the start out here on Tour but obviously I’m back on track a little bit now! But the main thing is to try and stay positive and patient.
Have you taken it for granted then?
No way. It’s the greatest job in the world and I’m very lucky with the places we get to travel and see plus the friendships we make along with the memories and good times we have out here on Tour. It’s something you can’t describe and I’m very fortunate to get to experience it.
How hard is it to win on the PGA Tour?
Anybody can win in any given week. The thing is we’re all hungry, and we’re all ready. Not only that, we’re pretty good, too, which is definitely a major factor. And we don’t have much fear – we expect to play well and have a chance to win and when we’re in contention, we’re aggressive and ready to go for it.
Do you feel different now you’re a multiple winner?
Not really, because I had the confidence that I could do it in the past. I just didn’t necessarily have the resume to go with it. But now I guess maybe I could have a little bit more swag when I’m walking out there. You look at people like DJ and Rory; I think it’s so cool watching them walk around the golf course, because they just look so unbeatable.
They have such great strides and such confidence when they walk. That sounds dumb, but when you’re playing against somebody, and they’re slumping their shoulders and they look exhausted, you’re like “Hey, I can beat this guy”.
When did you feel you really belonged on the PGA Tour?
Probably right when I turned pro or when I got my card and I don’t mean that in a cocky or arrogant way. I had played in enough Tour events as an amateur and had been around the hunt a couple of times so I knew that I could compete at that level.
Along with my family and management, we wanted to know that when I left school to join the professional ranks I was going to be ready to play against the best. Obviously I’m a lot more confident now than back then but I still felt pretty confident early in my career that I could play out here with these guys.
You must be supremely confident now and feel that you can virtually win every week?
You can’t realistically expect to win every tournament you play in, that’s just not realistic, but I expect to at least have a chance to win. Obviously I understand there is only one person that wins every week and the percentage is never going to be in your favour. But I expect that if I put in the proper preparation, then I should be able to at least get around the course well enough to be in the hunt and have a chance to make a run on Saturday to get in contention.
Tell us about that 59 in the Sony Open.
It was obviously a fun day. Anytime you make history in any sport, it’s a good thing. I didn’t really know how to react. I never had a putt on the last hole on a Thursday mean so much. So that was a little odd. Probably the best round I played before this was a junior event at Sage Valley. It was a par 72 and I was 11-under through 15. I just had to birdie two of the last three and I hit a 5-iron to like seven feet on 16 and I missed that. Then I parred 17, parred 18.
Did you believe you had a sub-60 round in the locker?
Yeah, I fully had faith in myself that I could shoot a really low number, shoot in the 50s and it’s nice to earn a place in the record books. I hope to have plenty more chances in my career. I’ve always felt like I can get pretty hot and when I get going, I can shoot some low scores. I guess it just kind of validated that a little bit.
And you were playing with two close friends that day...
We are always trying to put one over the other, but we have such a good bunch of young guys out here and it’s pretty cool to be part of that. It was fun and made more special by having Jordan and Daniel Berger, two of my best golfing buddies, alongside me when I shot 59. The coolest part for me was how excited they were for me on 18. I guess I’ll have that on them for now.
Did it frustrate you watching Jordan’s success in 2015?
I wasn’t mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating sometimes seeing some friends and peers my age do well. Not because I wasn’t cheering for them – because I feel like I was as good as them. It’s just immature of me. I mean, the fact of the matter is, over the course of a long career, we’re going to beat each other.
You have made pretty rapid progress, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing.
For sure. I had a lot of opportunities to win in my rookie year, but I didn’t get it done. But I learnt a lot from that and I felt, because of those weeks, more comfortable last year. I feel more comfortable this year when I do get in the hunt.
What’s it like being in contention?
I love being in the hunt. Now I feel very comfortable and I feel I can get the job done. The biggest thing is the belief that I can get it done without producing my best stuff. I think that’s what I’m really starting to believe and maybe I’ve had some fake self-belief in the past couple of years.
But now I’m becoming a smarter golfer, giving myself more chances and when I get into trouble I’m looking to just get it out and make par, generally accepting things more. I realise I don’t need to play my best to win – I just need to play smart.
How do you see 2017 panning out?
Obviously it’s been a great start, but this is a big year for the Majors for me and I always map my schedule around those. I like the week before off and I try to be fresh for them. I’m very excited, and not just because where my game is currently at because those four events come at different times when you don’t know how you’re going to be playing.
But the main goal for me is to get myself in the hunt in the Majors, a position I haven’t really been in yet in my career. So let’s get there and see what we can do.
Has Jordan’s Major success inspired you?
Yeah, I guess it helps a little bit. But he was doing what he was doing and I couldn’t worry about that. Obviously I don’t know when it’s my time to win a Major, and it could be soon or it could be never. It is what it is and I just have to be ready for it when it comes my way.
How good can you become?
Among my other aims is to become world No.1 and to be part of the US Ryder Cup team. I’ve always had the highest expectations for myself and expect to be the best at what
I do. Like I said about the Majors, you don’t know when it will happen, or if it will happen, but that’s why I play and I hope to be there at some point. And hopefully sooner rather than later. All I can keep worrying about though is what I’m doing that week in that tournament, and focus on my preparations.
You’re not a big guy but you absolutely crush it! What’s the secret?
I have no clue! I’ve been told I ‘use the ground’ well. The fact that I’m probably almost in the air at impact probably doesn’t hurt my driver distance average. Kind of why I wear metal spikes, because I need all the support I can get to not ip. Whatever it is, I’m pleased.
Golf is in the Thomas family genes – you’ve followed both your father and grandfather into the professional ranks.
My dad has been a big influence on my career: he’s been my role model and coach my whole life and to have him there during this whole process has been really cool. My grandpa has been a big influence, too – it’s cool that he played with Jack and Arnie and the stories he has.
There’s a really cool picture in my dad’s office of Arnie putting and my grandpa in the background, smoking a cigar like he does all the time, waiting to putt. He was a hell of a player. He still is; he’s 85 I think. He goes out there and hustle. You can’t take that competitive nature out of someone.
How old were you when you started playing golf?
I first picked up a club when I was two and altogether I’ve 129 wins right now. I thought it was pretty cool when I won some junior tournaments, so I just kept going! Winning the national championship at Alabama was awesome and it just felt it was the right time to turn pro. It’s been a blast.
What’s a typical week on Tour for you?
Monday is usually travel day. Tuesday I’ll probably get to the course around 9am and I like to practise until about lunchtime. I’ll then play nine holes and after that I’ll get worked on by the physio for 20 to 40 minutes.
On Wednesday, it’s the pro-am, and I usually play in the morning before having some lunch. I practise after that for a little bit, get worked on again by the physio and then, if time permits, squeeze in a workout. I’ll wake up bright and early in the morning, practise and play. There’s a lot of 6am wake-ups and I’m not getting back to the room till 5pm or so. Long days, but they’re worth it.
You’re very active on social media, and were part of the famous SB2K17 team (including Spieth, Fowler and Smiley Kaufmann) who shared a holiday to the Bahamas in April. What was that like?
It’s fun to do and I enjoy showing people what we like to do. I think it’s so cool that people are interested in me, so I try to have fun and connect with the people who respond to the things I post on media like Instagram and Snapchat.
None of us ever thought we’d get so much attention for our trip, but it gave us a great opportunity to put the Masters behind us. None of us were happy about how we played there, so we got away from it all and all our followers seemed to have fun with us!
WHAT HIS DAD SAYS
Though golf runs in the Thomas family, Justin’s dad Mike fostered his son’s obvious passion for the game. Justin was barely two when Mike gave him his first cut-down driver, a persimmon MacGregor. As a toddler, when he wanted to play he’d tell his mum, “bag of balls, bag of balls”.
“I remember one time him grabbing at my clubs and saying, ‘I want to hit one,’” Mike says. “He gripped the club cross-handed and started whacking balls.”
“From that point on, all he wanted to do was hit balls. When he was seven or eight, he’d call me on his way home from a tournament and say, ‘I’ll be home by 7.30, do you want to play nine holes?’ We’d eat dinner at nine or 9.30 every night.”
But he still had to be a parent, and sometimes quell Justin’s hatred of “bad golf”. Once, after finishing second in a junior tournament, he refused to accept the runner-up trophy. “He was probably 10,” said Mike. “He’d won like the first 15 tournaments he played in and he didn’t want to go get (the trophy). It was probably born out of Tiger saying stuff like, ‘I don’t like to play for second place.’
“We had a little heart-to-heart. I told him, ‘If you don’t get that trophy, this could be your last event.’ He finally succumbed.
“He handles bad situations so much better than he used to. What makes him good is he’s not willing to accept anything other than excellence. But you have to be careful that doesn’t work against you because that’s not going to happen all the time.”