Young Guns on the Rise: Justin Thomas
Posted by: mike August 14th, 2017
By Gary VanSickle
GWA President & Golf Insiders Contributor
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Good news: Only 240-some shopping days until the Masters!
That’s a long time between big-deal tournaments (and it’ll be worse when the PGA moves to May in 2019 and there’s a nine-month gap) but the 2017 major championship season should keep us warm until April comes to Augusta.
We witnessed three more first-time major champions this year--Sergio Garcia, at long last; Brooks Koepka, who plays like the next Dustin Johnson; and Justin Thomas, who didn’t wait long to start fulfilling his own great expectations.
We saw one of the craziest finishes in years--think Jean Van de Veldebut with a win. It featured Jordan Spieth intentionally taking a penalty drop on Royal Birkdale’s practice range and a subsequent birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie stretch that will be a topic of conversation for decades.
Perhaps most importantly, we saw three players capture majors who are likely to take many more. (My apologies, Sergio, but your younger amigos are the future, si?)
When Tiger Woods endured his body breaking down and Phil Mickelson stopped winning after his British Open title, I wrote that we had lived in a golden age of golfers playing for history and that we would never see such a thing again.
No one else would challenge the 18 majors of Jack Nicklaus. Hell, I wrote it was unlikely anyone would even get a sniff of Tiger and his 14 majors.
But here we are and the future isn’t bleak. Spieth took a crack at the career Grand Slam last week at Quail Hollow. Not bad for 24. He’s got three majors and the short game and iron-willed putting stroke to carve a serious niche in history.
Koepka is the prototype of the modern power hitter. We’ve barely seen his potential. The U.S. Open at Erin Hills surely won’t be his only big victory.
Enter Justin Thomas, also 24, your new PGA champion. He showed what he was made of with one clutch shot after another over the closing nine holes. It didn’t hurt that he got a couple of breaks, including a putt that hung tantalizingly on the lip before dropping and an errant drive at the 10th hole that caromed off a tree branch back into the fairway. Those things didn’t make the difference not really. It was Thomas, who pulled off big shots when he needed to and overcame a few poor shots when he had to. He went from being a future star to a star right now.
Yes, it’s going to be a few years until we see a player go deep into the record books but we’re in the middle of three straight career Grand Slam attempts—Spieth last week; Rory McIlroy at the Masters; and Mickelson at the U.S. Open. That may be unprecedented.
McIlroy, who’s won four, and Spieth have a head start piling up historic wins but a hot summer by Dustin Johnson or Jason Day or Thomas could get them into position to take it deep and see how close they can get their names to the likes of Gene Sarazen and Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer and Walter Hagen.
Who thought we could get this lucky so soon after the absence of Tiger?
Well, one guy who did was Jimmy Johnson, the veteran caddie who was on the bag for Thomas at the PGA. He was a long time caddie for Steve Stricker until Stricker, hoping to play less golf in his late 40s, insisted that Johnson accept an offer he termed “a no-brainer” to work with Thomas two years ago.
Johnson recognized his good fortune right away because he knows the game. I talked to him for a Sports Illustrated story about Thomas during the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
“He can hit shots that other guys can’t, like Tiger used to,” Johnson said of Thomas, then only 22. “I’m not comparing him to Tiger, I’m just saying he’s got shots that a lot of guys don’t.”
Earlier that year, Thomas became the first player to make ten birdies in a round at the Stadium Course in the Players Championship.
“That was pretty cool,” Thomas told me, but said he was disappointed he didn’t play a better the last day and challenge the eventual champion, his pal Rickie Fowler.
Thomas didn’t say he felt like he should have won or even could have won. But he was thinking it. He knew how good he could be and he didn’t like having to wait. That is a positive, in my book.
You probably forgot that Thomas won three times this season, none of them on the American mainland. He won the CIMB Classic in Malaysia last fall, then won two weeks in a row in Hawaii at the start of this year.
That makes four wins, including a major. Did I mention he’s only 24? Did you notice some of his big drives at Quail Hollow, which typically carried more than 320 yards in the air, according to the CBS graphics? Could you miss the way he started walking right away many of his swings on the final nine—because he knew he’d struck them perfectly. He’s got swagger, the good kind, and he seems cool.
Thomas has what you want in a major champion. Confidence. A big power game. A clutch putting gene. And, at 24, plenty of time.
The next Masters is a long ways away but relax. You have plenty of time to dream about what Thomas and this bumper crop of young guns might do over the next six or eight years. It could be special. Like last weekend.
Gary Van Sickle is a contributor for Golf Insiders and The Morning Read. He has written about golf since 1980, the last 20 years for Sports Illustrated, and for Golf World magazine and The Milwaukee Journal before that.
He played in two U.S. Senior Amateur championships, was once paired with Larry Mize and Tom Purtzer in U.S. Open sectional qualifying, has made seven holes-in-one and is not going to give you strokes. He lives in Pittsburgh.