FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Swept up in a summer schedule that seemingly never ends, Justin Thomas sure didn’t look like he was dragging on the practice green Sunday at Sycamore Hills Golf Club, where he took turns dropping 15-footers with good buddy Patrick Rodgers.
Three tournaments in two weeks – and Thomas feels as fresh as ever.
“I don’t get burned out,” Thomas said on the eve of the 35th Junior PGA Championship. “Mentally, I might be tired at the end of the week. But burned out? Never.”
In a practice round at Sycamore Hills, a spectacular Jack Nicklaus signature design winding around creeks, bunkers and long, tangled rough, Thomas made eight birdies while dazzling his playing partners, Rodgers and Oliver Schniederjans, both ranked in the top 10 nationally. Sure, the course played markedly easier after a half-inch of rain fell Saturday night, making the large landing areas in the fairway even more forgiving. And yes, Rodgers predicted the winning score would be somewhere around 12-under par.
But eight birdies? On a course that figures to someday host a major championship?
OK, so maybe that wasn’t the widely-held sentiment during this practice round. After all, soft fairways meant the 7,255-yard layout would play even longer – bad news for a medium-length player like Will Zalatoris.
At the par-4 16th, which during practice rounds played a beastly 460 yards to an uphill green with a hazard bordering the front, Zalatoris needed to hit driver and hybrid just to reach the putting surface. Some of his playing partners hit 3-wood into the green. He heard another player opted to hit driver off the deck.
“For my age, I hit it a pretty long way,” said Zalatoris, who will turn 14 later this month, “but I’m practically scooping the ball off the tee to get as much distance as I can.”
Rodgers called Sycamore Hills “a typical Jack Nicklaus design; it’s like a mini Muirfield Village.” It follows, then, that there is a premium placed on the approach shots. Miss the green and the ball dives into the thick rough – or plugs in the penal, high-lipped greenside bunkers.
“You can’t take a chance out here,” Zalatoris said. “Wet grass, tall rough, it just doesn’t work.”
It likely will play even more difficult for the girls. At 6,400 yards, Sycamore Hills is “the longest course I’ve ever played,” said Brittany Mai, 17, a Northwestern commit.
And it even caught the attention of PGA professional Suzy Whaley, whose daughter, Jenn, is playing the Junior PGA for the first time. “It’s long,” said Suzy Whaley, breaking into a smile, “but it’s also spectacular. And you can’t ask for much more than that.”
Which perhaps was why Thomas, after touring the course one final time, headed back to the range to beat balls into the late-afternoon sun.
Indeed, his work this week has just begun.