Last season, UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay authored one of the best freshman campaigns in recent memory, winning four times and posting nine top 10s and 10 top 25s. He won the Phil Mickelson Award. He won the Nicklaus Award. He won the Haskins Award, too.
What we are witnessing from Justin Thomas is even more impressive.
With his one-stroke victory May 19 at the NCAA Southeast Regional in Athens, Ga., the Alabama freshman earned his fourth title of the season and, presumably, became the frontrunner for National Player of the Year honors. Those four victories – among eight top 10s and nine top 20s (with next week’s NCAA Championship still to play) – are the most in NCAA Division I.
“All freshmen come in and have a learning curve,” Alabama teammate Hunter Hamrick said, “but Justin has come in and been that solid all year. The best thing I can say is that it feels like he’s been in college for a long time.”
“He has a knack for climbing to the top of the leaderboard,” ’Bama assistant coach Scott Limbaugh said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. He just fights, constantly.”
“He’s gotta start getting seconds or thirds, or he’s going to turn pro,” joked Tide sophomore Cory Whitsett. “I’m getting scared.”
“I expected him to be pretty good,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said, “but no way did I expect a freshman to be the best player in college golf.”
Thomas’ eye-opening play has helped propel ’Bama to five wins in seven spring starts, including last week’s 25-stroke romp at the NCAA Southeast Regional. The Tide are ranked No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, behind Texas, and are one of the favorites next week at Riviera.
So, if Thomas’ freshman season is on par with Cantlay’s in 2010-11, if not slightly better – unlike Cantlay, Thomas won his conference title – why is he not a lock for every postseason award?
Well, he’s facing plenty of competition, particularly in his own class. Consider these other freshmen standouts:
• Texas’ Jordan Spieth, the top-ranked player in Golfweek’s rankings, has garnered plenty of national attention this season, and for good reason: He won at Isleworth, lost in a playoff in Hawaii, shared medalist honors with teammate Dylan Frittelli at the Longhorns’ home event and posted six other top 10s.
• Stanford’s Patrick Rodgers, who like Spieth is a Hogan Award finalist, won two events and placed in the top 10 nine times in his first season in Palo Alto.
• Washington’s Cheng-Tsung Pan has a victory and five other top-10 finishes for the Huskies.
Impressive seasons, all of them, and next week’s NCAA Championship promises to bring even more clarity. But the best player in college golf this season, indisputably, has been Thomas.
The 19-year-old won his first college start, at the Carpet Capital Collegiate in September, where he closed with 65. In February, and less than three weeks from removed from his victory at the Jones Cup, one of the most prestigious events on the amateur schedule, Thomas shot 10-under 206 to win the Puerto Rico Classic. He didn’t finish outside the top 15 for the rest of the season.
Consecutive top 10s at the Schenkel, Linger Longer and Gary Koch. All three rounds in the 60s to win the SEC Championship. Steady play in Athens to win the individual title at the Southeast Regional.
“He’s a winner,” Seawell said of Thomas, No. 2 in Golfweek’s rankings. “And I’m not talking about winning trophies. He has that look in his eye. He fights for our team. I know there’s some great players in college golf – a lot of them, really – but he’s had as good a year as anyone.”
No – he’s been better.