Why Justin Thomas Is Golf's Next Great
A fiery competitor? No doubt about it.
Clutch shotmaker? Definitely.
The best player in the world? Possibly.
Justin Thomas officially "arrived" in a global sense in August 2017, when his PGA Championship triumph at Quail Hollow was too special to ignore. It was no surprise to those that have seen him evolve from a wiry teenager to an electric champion. And it was something you could see coming a mile away, with how he turned the corner months before.
Those of you who follow golf, and do so religiously, know the story by now. For those of you who may be casual viewers or new to the party as Tiger Woods fans, the journey of Justin Thomas is in many ways a classic golf prodigy story.
But in many other ways, the story is much more unique, and even somewhat wholesome.
Paul Thomas, Justin's grandfather, has been a PGA professional since he was 18 years old. He started out as an assistant pro, bouncing between different golf courses in Ohio until he settled in as the head pro at Zanesville Country Club in 1963.
He grew up 4 miles from Avon Fields in Cincinnati, Ohio, and even though neither of his parents played the game, he had heard money for caddying was good, and steady, so he made the round-trip walk daily.
Before Paul considered the game as a career, golf only had been a hobby (at most) for the Thomas family. Then, Paul dropped out of school and turned pro as a teenager.
He played alongside the greats of the game such as Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan, trying to make it on the PGA Tour at 25 years old. Paul had some decent success, making the cut in three U.S. Opens before settling into his life as a club pro.
The Lineage Continues
Paul’s son, Mike Thomas, Justins' father, continued the family interest in the game.
Mike has been the head pro at Harmony Landing in Louisville, Ky., for the better part of the last three decades, and while his playing career lost the luster of his son’s, or even Paul’s, Mike holds the same passion for the game, even joking that the talent in the family skipped a generation.
After feeling the pressure of living in his father’s shadow, Mike did the opposite with Justin, bringing him along at his pace. Luckily for Justin, he was a worker and has blossomed into one of the most competitive players on tour.
Making a Statement
Justin’s debut to the national golf public is a faily common story: Local kid gets a sponsor's exemption to play in a nearby tournament.
What was uncommon was Justin’s performance at the 2009 Wyndham Championship, when as a 16-year-old high schooler, he became the third-youngest player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event.
What was even more notable was how he finished.
Justin was going to miss the 54-hole cut with two holes to play when a rain delay struck. Following the resumption of play, Justin came out and saved par out of the bunker and followed that up with a birdie.
Despite expectations and outside pressures to turn pro quickly, Justin enrolled at the University of Alabama in 2011, joining a team of other future solid pros, including Tom Lovelady, Trey Mullinax and Dru Love.
Even among this crew, Justin stood out, winning the Haskins Award for the nation’s top collegiate golfer in his freshman year. The next year, he led the Crimson Tide to a national championship.
Size Doesn't Matter
Justin is listed at 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 145 pounds. He also regularly mashes golf balls into the stratosphere.
Those measurements are probably two years and about 20 pounds off of reality, but Justin gets the absolute most out of his wispy frame.
His club-head and ball speeds rank near the top on tour, and his driving distance follows suit. He ranks ninth this season in driving distance, pelting the ball 314 yards with the big stick.
His coach at Alabama, Jay Seawell, summed this up in a quote that also fits Justin’s competitiveness perfectly, "If a guy was hitting it farther than him, I think he’s the type who would say, 'I’m going to hit it where he hit it.' He was not going to be denied."
He Keeps It Real
In the age of crafted social media campaigns and canned answers, Justin is unafraid and unapologetically genuine.
He caught some heat for throwing a fan out of the Honda Classic earlier this year. He parties on boats and golf courses with his famous friends. He throws social media jabs at his peers. He pumps up the crowd after big shots.
Justin isn’t afraid of the public eye and is a fun follow on Instagram and Twitter. Golf Twitter can be entertaining, but it also can get serious in ways that are sometimes borderline comical regarding rulings and tournament exemptions.
Ball Is Life
Some guys on tour are golf nuts, very into the equipment and the specifics of the game. Tiger Woods can tell down to the gram if a club has been adjusted.
While Thomas has all the skill and the mental makeup to dominate on the course, as he’s demonstrated over the past three years, he is no gearhead.
Thomas is a sports fan. That may be obvious based on his profession, but it’s not true of plenty of players on tour.
Thomas brings that fan attitude with him to the golf course in the way he approaches things. It’s always about executing first and having fun, without getting bogged down in the technical details of every aspect of the game.
His fan attitude makes him easy to root for, and you can tell he is having as much fun as you would be if you could shoot a 59.
Better Than Jordan?
Joined at the hip in more than a few ways, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth are somewhat unwilling rivals.
The two grew up playing the same junior golf events, and that blossomed into a very real, if sometimes overblown, friendship. You see each of them pop up on their social channels and offer congratulations after the other wins.
Friendship and courtesies aside, these two are the Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson of the modern era, and neither one is exactly running away from that notion.
Although Spieth got out to the head start, bursting onto the scene with a win at the Masters and following that up with a British and U.S. Open, Justin has caught fire and is not looking back.
Since Spieth won the 2016 British Open, Thomas has eight victories to Spieth’s three, including the 2017 PGA Championship, a World Golf Championship and a FedExCup trophy.
Oh, and he also shot a 59. Not bad for 25.
Have Game, Will Travel
The fall season of the PGA Tour has been disparaged as having less importance than spring and summer events, but the wins count the same. Just ask Justin.
Justin’s debut victory came in Malaysia at the CIMB Classic.
His second win came at the exact same event the following year.
Then we won twice in Hawaii.
After that, the PGA at Quail Hollow in North Carolina.
He then won the Tour's maiden voyage into Korea at the CJ CUP.
And earlier this year, he lost to Phil Mickelson in a playoff in Mexico.
The message is clear. Justin’s game travels well. Different layouts, different countries, different continents. It does not matter.
If you drop Justin Thomas at a random golf course, he’s one of the favorites to tear it up.
Write It Down
Write down your goals, kids. It just might mean the difference between greatness or wading through the waters of mediocrity.
It is impossible to know how much Justin’s philosophy of keeping a working list of his goals contributes to his continued success, but it’s definitely indicative of his drive to be one of the best to ever tee it up.
Thomas revealed after the 2017 Tour Championship, during which he won the season-long race for the FedExCup (along with a nice $10 million check), the list of goals he often alluded to throughout the year.
He checked off 12 of the 15 items on the list, including "Tour championship," "Win a major," and "Make presidents cup."
These might seem basic, something all players go for, but the difference in writing it down and keeping track showcases the commitment that Justin has to being the best.
He’s rooted in golf, but the most heartwarming part of Justin’s story is how much those roots take hold — and how deep they run.
From his grandparents in Ohio, to his parents in Kentucky, and extending to his longtime girlfriend, Jillian, the Thomas clan is tightly knit.
His parents are at every event, alongside Jillian in the gallery, with Mike typically paying a closer, more analytical eye to each swing (and even caddying on occasion).
Even though his grandparents cannot follow the Thomas tour on the road, they were able to see him win at Firestone in Akron, and with this being the last event at the course for the foreseeable future, that makes it so much more special.
Top of the New Generation
Much has been made of the young crop of stars in the game these days. They are not the same mold as the older generation of Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh.
Tiger Woods changed many things about golf, but the biggest impact he made is probably on the physical fitness end.
These guys really care about being as fit as possible, and every one has a different definition.
From the raw, lanky athleticism of Dustin Johnson to the brute strength of Brooks Koepka, there are many ways to see these guys take their games and careers to a different level than generations past.
But among all these, Justin stands out. He’s not a pile of muscles like Koepka, or an absolute marvel like Johnson, but his commitment to being in shape, adding yards and pounds, allows him to keep up and even surpass more of the muscularly gifted players.
His record is only getting better as his body develops and he stays that much more ahead of his peers.
Best Is Yet to Come
All the signs are there. Justin Thomas is set up for greatness.
He is already one win away from matching Sergio Garcia. Thomas got his first major out of the way at 24. He’s a World No. 1 and the defending FedExCup champion.
The question is: How high can he climb?
We are accustomed to a golfer’s prime coming 10 years down the road from where Thomas is now. Is that changed with the new commitment to physical fitness? Or does that extend the prime?
Time will tell on those, but if his success is any indication, Justin Thomas is only getting started.