The look of a champion

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Will this man dominate in 2018? Mark Townsend charts the rise of World No. 4 Justin Thomas

“I don’t want to say it’s a relief to win but it’s hard to win with the level of play out here. It means you’re the best that week and you beat everybody you played against. It’s a really cool feeling and it’s tough because it doesn’t happen very often, especially in professional golf.”

This was not Justin Thomas speaking after one of his five victories in 2017 but after his first professional win on the Web.com Tour, the 19th of 20 starts in 2014.

Thomas was already going to progress to the main tour but he hadn’t yet won before he came through this play-off against Richard Sterne at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship.

The South African had the tournament in the bag but then bogeyed 15, 16 and 17 and Thomas then hit a wedge from 75 yards to a couple of feet in extra time.

A little over three years later and Thomas has seven more victories, one of which is a major. Before any of us could add him to the usual contenders’ list of The Best Player Never To Win A Major he hoovered up at last year’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow.

An opening 73 was quickly forgotten and he ended up winning by two. A few weeks later he was crowned the FedEx Cup champion.

Otherwise he became the seventh player in PGA Tour history to shoot a 59 down in Hawaii, courtesy of an eagle at the last, before doing likewise on day three of the US Open for a 63 and the lowest, in relation to par, round in the history of the Championship.

He could even afford two bogeys.

Much is made of Thomas’ pound-for-pound driving (he ranked eighth for distance on last year’s PGA Tour), he makes a shed load of birdies (2nd) and eagles (2nd). Rickie Fowler has another take on it and says that his Spring Break sidekick has an unbelievable short game and that Thomas always cleans up in any chipping contests.

The Kentucky star put on 20 pounds last year and hit the gym on a more regular basis to work on a variety of core- strengthening exercises.

On a non-tournament week he will likely be in the gym five days a week in sessions that last up to 90 minutes with 10 minutes of stretching either side.

And with that came more speed, more strength and all those titles.

Much is made of his friendship with Jordan Spieth, who is three months younger than his tour buddy.

Their paths first crossed at an American Junior Golf Association event at Walnut Creek when they were just 13.

“We battled it out on Sunday and we were about tied and I edged him out that day,” Spieth recalls. “We played a few more tournaments throughout the year and went back and forth.”

Five years later Spieth got the better of Thomas but this time in the NCAA Championship at Riviera as the Longhorns of Texas defeated Alabama’s Crimson Tide to take the team title.

“Riviera is a great memory. I’ll have that one on him every time we’re there. But he got his Natty (National Championship) the next year.”

So when Spieth was nearly winning the Grand Slam in 2015 and Thomas was yet to get off the mark was there any jealousy?

“No, I never, ever got that sense whatsoever from him,” said Spieth. “Just always kept his head down and worked hard, and it’s certainly paying off. Obviously he’s become a tremendous closer.

“We grew up together. We roomed together when we were 14 years old. He’s one of my best friends in the whole world. We can share experiences with each other that we can’t really describe or explain to anybody else that’s our age, or very few, I should say, and it creates a unique relationship.

“He probably had some feelings of anxiousness, right. Just wanting to have those opportunities, wanting to get into the spots. I just started earlier than he did on Tour. I feel like we’re very similar calibre of player and I just got a couple years of experience head start.”

So what does Thomas remember of that first meeting at Walnut Creek?

“I just remember he (Jordan) came up and introduced himself on the range because we were in the final group. It’s 14, 15-year- olds, that doesn’t happen very often. So I thought that was cool. And he beat me that day. I think I finished third-ish, I don’t know, second. I didn’t play very well. Then shortly after that, we went to France and played for Team USA, so that’s kind of when we got closer.”

And how does Thomas view the transformation from young hopeful to the Player of the Year and just the fourth golfer to win ve times, including a major, in a season since 1960 before his 25th birthday? The others being Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Spieth.

“I’m stronger,” he said. “I’m in better shape. I’m way more mentally tough. Things don’t affect me as much. I mean,
I’m still fiery. I still get angry. That’s just my personality, my character; that will probably never change.

“But in terms of letting it roll over into the next shot, I think I’m way better at that.”

After his win at the Dell Technologies, the second of the FedEx Cup Play-offs, Thomas admitted that he had handled things better than the early days in his career which, given he only turned pro at the end of 2013, re ects someone who is a pretty fast learner.

“I was probably more nervous than I was at the PGA, as weird as it sounds. I caught myself having a lot of deep breaths and just a lot of, you know, staying in the moment. It was tough. The crowds were crazy,” he said.

“I was nervous but definitely in the beginning of my career, all of two and a half years ago. I think I forced things. I tried to win the tournament, as opposed to let it happen. Obviously I’m trying to win the tournament now but I’m more just letting the birdies happen, letting the pars happen, as opposed to I have to birdie this hole, I have to hit here, I have to, he’s up there; he did that, I have to do this.

“Whereas now it’s, look, all I’m going to do is play the hole as best I can. If I make birdie, great. If I don’t, I’ll just try to birdie the next hole. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.

“I was probably impatient when I started.”

When September and the Ryder Cup come around Thomas will be part of an American team that will be hoping to win on European soil for the first time since 1993.

When Thomas was asked at the start of 2016 whether he would rather win a major or be part of a winning Ryder Cup team, he replied: “Winning Ryder Cup team. Hands down.”

Imagine that response, which he was promptly panned for, from an American 10 years ago.

At the 2013 Walker Cup he was part of a crushing success and personally unbeaten in three matches. One of his points came against North Foreland’s Max Orrin in the Sunday singles.

Orrin at the time was ranked 7th in the amateur world, ve places ahead of Thomas, but the match was over by the 14th.

“It’s weird, the first time I heard of him was at the Walker Cup,” said Orrin. “Patrick Rodgers was the big name on their team. When we looked at their team Pat was the one you thought of.

“I’m not sure if it was common knowledge but he had a back injury and I can remember him struggling off the tee, he was hitting these big snap hooks and his back was troubling him but he would then hit these recovery shots.

“On the back nine he snapped his driver and then hit a 3-wood to 10 feet. I don’t remember him being that quick or long but that was maybe his injury.”

At the culmination of each Walker Cup, the guessing games begin as to who are going to be the future superstars and Orrin, while being impressed by Thomas, singled out Rodgers as the next big thing.

“We had a lot of good players but no obvious major winners. Matt Fitzpatrick was the No 1 at the time and has obviously kicked on, but you would have said Rodgers as being the one.”

That is an opinion that is shared by Orrin’s foursomes partner Nathan Kimsey, who also came up against Thomas in the Saturday singles.

“I came away thinking Justin was going to be a star particularly given his success at Alabama. But Rodgers had played in the 2011 matches and was winning everything and breaking records at Stanford. There was also Bobby Wyatt who Max and I played against in both the foursomes and he barely missed a shot. Certain names stick in your memory and Justin was definitely one of them.”

Kimsey had actually crossed paths with Thomas two years previously in their junior days. The Sage Valley Invitational brings together the best juniors from around the world and Kimsey and Thomas were paired on the opening day in the tournament’s inaugural year.

“He shot maybe 78 or 79, he made a nine at the 2nd which was a par 3 as he kept hitting it in the water and he then played OK. The next two rounds he shot 68-62, tying the course record and nished fourth. He obviously had something about him to bounce back from that start.”

Kimsey’s match with Thomas finished all square and he also recalls a battling spirit about the then 20-year-old.

“I didn’t know about the bad back and you certainly couldn’t tell. I felt like I played better than him most of the way round, I had the upper hand on a lot of holes, I would be hitting it inside him or I’d be on the fairway and he would just be in the rough but he kept making putts or would get up and down and I couldn’t get away from him.

“We were getting battered but the winning point happened to come when I lost to Nathan Smith so there were a lot of their team there and they were obviously celebrating. Justin came up to me straightaway and said well played. He made a point of speaking to me and shaking my hand which I thought was pretty good.”

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