Lifestyle

The Rise of Justin Thomas

Rob Clayden

Birthright does not win you major championships.

Sure, hailing from a golfing heritage can certainly induce a love for the game, but to chalk up destiny as an explanation for success at the highest level is to ignore the developmental ingredients of a champion golfer.

No golfer is born a winner, and no career is without its obstacles.

In the case of current world number two, Justin Thomas, his upbringing could not have been more golf-centric.

His father and coach, Mike, has been a club professional at Harmony Landing Golf Club in Goshen, Kentucky since 1990, while his grandfather, Paul, worked the same occupation in Ohio, competing in PGA Tour events and major championships throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Ever since he could walk, Justin would wander the fairways of Harmony Landing, teeing up golf balls himself as young as two years old. With former Ryder Cup venue Valhalla also nearby in Louisville, Thomas was in the clubhouse to watch Tiger Woods fight his way into a playoff at the 2000 PGA Championship.

Golf was always on his doorstep.

Golf - French Open - Le Golf National, Guyancourt, France - July 1, 2018 Justin Thomas of the U.S. during the final round REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Golf - French Open - Le Golf National, Guyancourt, France - July 1, 2018 Justin Thomas of the U.S. during the final round REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Growing up around the game and being the product of such a rich golfing heritage, it is perhaps natural to connect the dots between Thomas’ background and his ongoing success on the PGA Tour.

Yet what is striking about Thomas’ early development is that he was never smothered by the game. Golf was always organically fun for Justin, and his parents, Mike and Jani, made sure to prioritise his enjoyment of the sport above all else.

Somewhat ironically, Mike has been open about his instincts to hold Justin back from golf at times, ensuring his balance of life remained grounded. Junior tournaments were very much presented as opportunities for Justin to enter, enacting his own volition.

Ultimately, spending time around the game and learning to love golf superseded all thoughts of a pro career in Thomas’ formative years, and keeping golf fun was a fact that the reigning FedEx Cup Champion would credit in the immediate aftermath of his PGA Championship win last August.

Speaking to the press, Justin said, “I was so lucky to have very supportive parents that didn’t push me and didn’t kind of force me to play golf.

Obviously it was set up for golf to be in my bones and to grow up to play that, but they treated me the same whether I shot 66 or 76, and they’re a huge reason, if not the reason, why I’m sitting up here right now.”

Reacting to Justin’s comments on the Golf Channel, Mike mentioned that enjoying golf became the overriding principle that flowed through the family bloodline.

“I just tried to impress on Justin, let’s just have fun. Whatever you’re doing, let’s have fun doing it, whatever that is.”

There is no doubt that by learning to love the game, Thomas had acquired the perfect foundations to launch a successful junior and professional career.

The next step was learning how to win, and how to cope with defeat.

Justin Thomas will be the first person to tell you how much he hates losing.

Certainly, as his junior career progressed, Justin’s development became characterised by his innate competitiveness, and handling the mental challenges that accompany the desire to win.

As Thomas found success during his teenage years, his love for competing and expectations of winning undoubtedly strengthened.

One of his most notable achievements came as a 16-year-old at the Wyndham Championship in 2009, becoming the third youngest player to make the cut at a PGA Tour event.

Going on to play golf at the University of Alabama, Thomas also won the Haskins award in his rookie season in 2012, presented to the most outstanding collegiate golfer in the United States.

Even as early as 2007, Justin was making his impression on an international stage, winning the Evian Junior Masters in France, aged 14. Thomas was representing the U.S alongside the now three-time major winner Jordan Spieth, at an event which kick-started their friendship and initiated the inevitable comparisons that would be made between the two.

Golf - The 147th Open Championship - Carnoustie, Britain - July 17, 2018 Jordan Spieth of the U.S. shows his phone to Justin Thomas of the U.S. during the practice round REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff
Golf - The 147th Open Championship - Carnoustie, Britain - July 17, 2018 Jordan Spieth of the U.S. shows his phone to Justin Thomas of the U.S. during the practice round REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

Yet as both young stars sought the formula to establish themselves as professionals, Justin’s mentality proved a stumbling block along his path to meteoric success.

Alabama’s loss to the University of Texas in the 2012 national championship saw Thomas beaten by Spieth in the battle of two of the best amateurs in the country. The result was perhaps symbolic of their respective readiness to turn professional, and as Spieth set about doing just that towards the end of 2012, Thomas held off, citing his maturity as the reason why.

There was never any doubt about his golfing ability, and Justin was aware that it was a matter of being patient and getting his mental game in the right place, before victory would eventually become routine on tour.

It was no surprise that when it all began to click in the 2016/17 PGA Tour season, Thomas took the golfing world by storm.

Winning three of his first five starts, Thomas defended his CIMB Classic title in Malaysia – the site of his very first PGA Tour win. He also became the youngest player to shoot a 59 at a PGA tour event at the Sony Open in Hawaii, joining only six others in PGA Tour history to shoot under 60.

Victory at the 2017 PGA Championship and the Dell Technologies Championship added even more exclusivity to his achievements, as Thomas became only the fourth man to win five times, including a major, in a PGA Tour season.

The other three men to do so?

Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth.

Thomas was now quite literally in the same esteemed company as Spieth, having overcome the inevitable difficulty of seeing his close friend succeed earlier and more often at the highest level.

When he lifted the FedEx Cup at the end of the 2017 season, it had become abundantly clear how far his mentality and maturity had come since his college days.

But through all of the ups and downs of his young and bright career, father Mike has remained the most telling constant – and not just as Justin’s coach.

Posting on Instagram after his maiden major victory last August, Justin summed up how much his win meant, referencing the special relationship he has with his Dad.

“A moment my dad and I will cherish forever. The amount of work he's put into his job being a PGA professional and my coach, mentor, friend, and dad, I'll never be able to thank him enough. This one is for us, pops .”

It was a touching summary of a relationship built on hard work and a love for the game.

Speaking in January 2018 at the 3rd PGA Global Youth and Family Summit, Mike addressed the parents of the next generation of golfers, emphasising the importance of encouraging their children so as to keep golf fun and exciting.

“Kids self-esteem is always tied to their score, and I’m trying to get them to address other aspects of their life. I often see parents who are not as good of a player as their child telling them what they did wrong. Parents don’t need to tell their child what they did wrong. They already know on their own.”

The Thomas family serves as an example that despite their rich golfing tradition, a positive and enjoyable outlook on the sport is ultimately what counts in the making of a champion.

There is no obligation to be born into a family of PGA professionals in order to win major championships.

Absolutely anyone can fall in love with the game.