Young gun finds his range

Golf : Having overcome his struggles, Justin Thomas is on a roll and looks set to be a threat at the majors

Young gun finds his range

Inside the golf shop at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Kentucky, there are 129 golf balls on a rack. Each ball represents one of Justin Thomas' wins, starting in elementary school. In a nearby box, there are balls from his holes-in-one.

Thomas' father, Mike, the club's head professional since 1990, will soon add two more balls to the collection, because his son won the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu last week, his second victory in two weeks. In the opening round, Thomas became the seventh player in PGA Tour history -- and, at 23, the youngest -- to shoot a 59.

"We'll get a separate glass case for that one," Mike Thomas said of the 59 ball, joking about what it might fetch on eBay. "I can't have that one just sitting out in the shop."

The ball might be worth even more a few years from now.
No one is playing better than Thomas at the moment. In his Sony Open victory, Thomas closed with a final-round 65 that included a birdie on the final hole and finished at 253 for the week, breaking the tour's 72-hole scoring mark by a stroke. During the week, he also matched the tour's lowest opening 18-hole score, broke the 36-hole mark and tied for the lowest 54-hole total.

He won the SBS Tournament of Champions by three strokes this month, and he won the Sony Open by seven strokes, finishing 27 under par at 253. He also won in October, defending his title at the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and now has three victories in his last five worldwide starts.

"It's definitely the best of my career," Thomas said of his recent play. "I definitely haven't shown the world my best golf. I haven't even shown the world great golf, or consistent, great golf."

It is also only the beginning.
Thomas is among the talented golfers leading the sport's transition from the Tiger Woods era to one featuring a handful of brilliant 20-somethings, including world No 1 Jason Day, 29; second-ranked and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, 27; two-time major winner Jordan Spieth, 23; and Rickie Fowler, 28, who has won six times around the world, including the Players Championship.

Thomas' rapid rise, however, does not surprise those who know him best. From the first time he picked up a golf club at 18 months old -- a MacGregor persimmon 2-wood that his father had cut down to child size -- golf has been an obsession for Thomas, an only child. As soon as he could walk, Thomas would tag along whenever his father would practice.

"I remember one time him grabbing at my clubs and saying, 'I want to hit one,' " Mike Thomas said. "He gripped the club cross-handed and started whacking balls. From that point on, all he wanted to do was hit balls. His mom would tee them up, and he'd hit them."

The older Thomas said he often asked Justin if he wanted to go to the swimming pool or to play basketball. He was not interested. "When he was 7 or 8 years old, 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?' " Mike Thomas said. "We'd eat dinner at 9 or 9:30 every night. Selfishly, it allowed me to play more golf."

The older Thomas taught his son the fundamentals, but he was cautious about pushing him too hard. Most of their lessons would last 10 or 15 minutes, in part because Mike Thomas had a busy schedule teaching and competing, but also because he did not want to be overbearing.
"I've seen it done wrong so many times," Mike Thomas said. "It was more important that we were friends than he was a good player."

He added: "I'd watch him hit a few balls and ask him what he thought was causing the ball to do what it did. I'd tell him, 'What are you going to do, call me when you're on the 15th hole of a tournament?' Because of that, he knows his own game."
Not that Thomas needed any pushing. He was all in from early on, with his mother, Jani, shuttling him to tournaments.

When Justin was 7, he was in the clubhouse at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, about 20 miles from his home, when Tiger Woods battled Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship. The autograph he sought that week was not from Woods, but from Jack Nicklaus, the career leader in major titles.

Golf was in the younger Thomas' lineage, too. His father was a longtime PGA of America professional who toiled on the mini-tours before turning to teaching. His paternal grandfather, Paul, was the head professional at Zanesville Country Club in Ohio for more than 25 years and played in the US Open.

Thomas has quickly surpassed them.  Thomas is slight, at 5 feet 10 inches and 140 pounds, but he became one of the best strikers and longer hitters, accumulating seven top-10 finishes in 2015. He also finished second to Daniel Berger in the rookie of the year voting. But he was feeling the burden of expectation.

Part of a notable high school class of 2011 that included Spieth and Berger, Thomas watched as Spieth, whom he had grown close to and had competed against for several years, reached superstardom after winning the first two majors of 2015.

Thomas was also frustrated by a handful of missed opportunities to win that season. So he took Nicklaus up on an offer to call if he ever needed anything. Nicklaus invited Thomas to his home in Palm Beach, Florida, and the two talked for nearly three hours. There was a particularly telling insight.

"I had the same game plan during a tournament when I was playing bad as when I playing good: being just as aggressive, hitting at every pin," Thomas said. "When you're hitting it bad, you can't do that. When I'm playing bad, I need to just hit the green. I remember that talk a lot."

The success of Spieth also pushed Thomas.
"I wasn't mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating sometimes seeing some friends and peers my age do well," Thomas said. "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."
Now Thomas is on top, and Spieth, who finished third in Honolulu, is not surprised.

"It's nothing out of the ordinary," Spieth said. "There was no doubt, whether we believed it was as hard as it is or not, we just chose to shrug it off, and hey, we're just going to go to the next level and the next level."

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