JERSEY CITY, N.J – When you’ve had a season like that of Justin Thomas, it can be difficult to determine the most important metric amid such heady success. Unless you’re his dad.
Mike Thomas can recite chapter and verse on the accomplishments that are expected to earn his son the PGA Tour Player of the Year award: the five wins, the first major victory at the PGA Championship, the FedEx Cup title, record-setting rounds (59 at the Sony Open, 63 at the U.S. Open), the Arnold Palmer Award for topping the money list, the 3½-1½ record in his first U.S. team appearance at the Presidents Cup.
The 2017 season has brought an avalanche of accolades for the 24-year-old, but none of those tops his old man’s list of what matters.
“You know, I look at it from two sides. As a teacher I’m looking at what we’re doing well and what we can improve on,” Mike Thomas said. “And as a father, I’m looking at how you need to treat people like you want to be treated. At the end of the day, those things are more important to me than how you’re hitting it.”
So, chalk up another win for JT?
“I hope that people think that he is,” Dad says. “I like to believe that he is. I don’t see a lot of negative stuff come out about him. The key is to stay that way. We’re from a small town in Kentucky, and we have to keep our roots.”
Thomas is on track to win Player of the Year over three other nominees: Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama and Open Championship winner Jordan Spieth. The vote by his peers would make official what has been obvious most of the season: Just three years into his career, Justin Thomas is the best player on Tour.
Thomas began his season hot in the heat of Malaysia, retaining his title at the CIMB Classic, and quickly followed by sweeping both Tour stops in Hawaii, the SBS Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open, where he opened with a 59 and cantered to a seven-stroke win. In the third round of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills he hit one of the best shots of the year, a 3-wood from 310 yards that set up an eagle and a round of 63, the first 9-under-par round in Open history.
And those are just the appetizers in his feast of a season.
At Erin Hills, Thomas had faded Sunday with a 75, a swoon that still gnawed at him as he entered the final round of the PGA Championship in August. He survived a final-day shootout at Quail Hollow Club to win the PGA Championship, then three weeks later added the Dell Technologies Championship, joining Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Spieth as the only players since 1960 to capture five titles including a major in a season before the age of 25.
Two weeks later he closed with a 66 at East Lake Golf Club, good for only second at the Tour Championship but enough to pass Spieth at the wire to claim the FedEx Cup and a $10 million bonus. That more than doubled the $9,921,560 he hauled to the bank in topping the Tour money list.
“You knew when he won, the floodgates were going to open because he’s one of the best iron players,” Phil Mickelson said at the Presidents Cup. “His consistency in that high level of play is what’s impressive.”
Mickelson is one among many in the game who saw the early potential in the University of Alabama standout.
“In 2015, so much of what Justin Thomas did went unnoticed because another 22-year-old was doing unprecedented things,” says Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, noting the two-major breakout season of Spieth. “But he proved as a rookie that he was one of the most complete players on the Tour – he was seventh in the All-Around statistic – but his scoring average on Sunday hinted at an immaturity. That was understandable, of course, but it certainly offered room for improvement.”
Now, in the crucible of Sunday afternoons, no one on Tour is more heat-resistant.
“Two years later, his Sunday scoring average is the third best on Tour,” Chamblee said. “And when he has a late tee time – meaning when he’s in the hunt – he has the lowest scoring average on Tour.”
After winning the PGA Championship, Thomas offered a rare admission for an elite sportsman: Watching his friends win majors had made him jealous.
“Frustration probably isn’t the right word. Jealousy definitely is,” he said as he cradled the Wanamaker Trophy. “I mean, there’s no reason to hide it. I was jealous that Sergio won, that Brooks won, that Jordan won. I wanted to be doing that and I wasn’t.”
That fiery determination was familiar to his father.
“Ever since he was little, whenever a challenge came up he loved it. Whether it’s to win a tournament on the Tour or to win a junior event, coming down to the end he always loved those challenges,” Mike Thomas said. “It drives that whole class.”
That “class” is the much-ballyhooed high school class of 2011, the young guns only just liberated from high school acne who have already made their presence felt on the PGA Tour. Thomas and Spieth are its most successful graduates, but its members include Daniel Berger, Xander Schauffele, Emiliano Grillo, Ollie Schniederjans and the Patricks, Rodgers and Cantlay.
“It’s a cool little friendship we have. We obviously all want to win, we want to beat the other person,” Thomas said at Quail Hollow. “But if we can’t win, we at least want to enjoy it with our friends. I think that we’ll all be able to enjoy this together, and I know it’s going to make them more hungry.”
One of his friends feeling that hunger is Berger, his Presidents Cup teammate and a neighbor in Jupiter, Fla.
“A lot of us don’t have families, we don’t have kids,” Berger said. “It’s not very complicated. We wake up in the morning and try to get better at golf. The most impressive thing was [Thomas’] ability to contend so many times. He really played well at the end of the year, which is tough to do with how well he played in the beginning of the year.”
It is how the 5-foot-10, 145-pound Thomas wins while maintaining those friendships that has earned him the admiration of one legend who knows about competing against bigger, stronger competition.
“His basic fundamentals in the swing are absolutely outstanding. I watched him swing down in Florida and I was so impressed,” Gary Player said. “I think the young guys are setting a wonderful example in that you can be competitive and want to beat each other and still be gentlemen.”
What the World No. 4 accomplished this season would be a career for most and already surpasses the resumes of previous wunderkinds who never quite delivered at the highest level of major championships, faded stars such as Anthony Kim, Charles Howell III, Hunter Mahan and Rory Sabbatini.
One observer thinks there’s reason to believe Thomas won’t join that lengthy list of young guns who ran out of ammunition.
“His old-school golf background means he plays by feel, an advantage because he’s amongst so many that paint by numbers,” Chamblee says. “It also means he won’t chase some mythological perfection in technique, which wastes time and energy, makes Tour pros mad and helps explain so many enigmatic drop-offs in this game.”
Since he is the son of a longtime PGA of America professional—and Mike is his only teacher—it seems unlikely Team Thomas will detour into that career-threatening cul-de-sac. Their approach starting the 2017-2018 seasons is no more complicated than it was 12 months ago, the father said.
“We’re focusing on being more patient and playing smarter golf,” he says. “Focus on that and you get a result.”
(Note: This story appears in the October 2017 issue of Golfweek.)