Thomas’ hot streak continues at Junior PGA

Justin Thomas

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Oliver Schniederjans sensed something was amiss when he left a practice round on the wrong side of a friendly wager. He hardly missed a shot around Sycamore Hills Golf Club, made a slew of birdies of his own, felt confident about his pre-tournament preparation – and still walked off the 18th hole wondering if he could go low enough to compete with Justin Thomas. 

“It just doesn’t seem like it’s hard for him,” said Schniederjans, Golfweek’s second-ranked junior. “It’s almost like he doesn’t worry about his swing. He just gets up there and uses his talent and hits it right at the flag.” 

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Justin Thomas

Different state, different format – the same impressive form from Justin Thomas. 

Thomas shot a 7-under 65 Monday to set a course record and take a one-shot lead over Schniederjans after the opening round of the Junior PGA Championship, continuing a torrid stretch of golf in which he seemingly gains more confidence by the hole. Perhaps it was only fitting, then, that he drained a 15-footer on the final hole to move atop the leaderboard for the first time. 

“I’m happy with the way I hit it, and I’m rolling it well,” said Thomas, 17, of Goshen, Ky. “It’s funny what happens when you finally make some putts.” 

That wasn’t exactly the case during the recent U.S. Junior Amateur. Struggling to make anything outside of 20 feet, Thomas fell behind early in the 36-hole final match and never recovered, losing to 14-year-old Jim Liu. Nine days later, Thomas has a renewed confidence on the greens.  

“I feel a lot more comfortable, and I’m seeing the line better,” said Thomas, who credited the turnaround to simply holding his hands a little higher at address. “But the way it’s been going recently, it’s been more of a one-day thing.” 

This looks a bit more permanent. Just ask Schniederjans. 

During a practice round Sunday with Tom Lovelady, Patrick Rodgers and Schniederjans, each of whom is ranked in the top 20 nationally, Thomas recorded eight birdies to dazzle his buddies and waltz to victory. “Those eight birdies really did it for him,” Schniederjans said, laughing. 

Thomas appeared well on his way to matching that output in the opening round, starting birdie-eagle before making the turn in 3-under 33. The back nine yielded a few more birdies, after he stuck his approach to 5 feet on No. 10, then drained a 40-footer on 11. He was on the verge of picking up at least another shot on the 564-yard, par-5 12th, after a massive drive left him only 200 yards to the flag. But his approach sailed over the green and kicked onto the downslope of a bunker, and he was unable to get up-and-down. He closed his round with birdies on Nos. 15 and 18. 

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Oliver Schniederjans

Afterward, though, Thomas seemed resigned to the fact that he’d be trailing after Day 1. 

“Somebody will be taking it deep at the end of the day,” Thomas said. “I feel like if someone can get hot, they can shoot 62 or 63 out here, no problem.” 

No one in the afternoon wave came close. 

Seven players were tied for third at 70, a group that includes 2008 Junior PGA champion Anthony Paolucci and Rodgers, who won the Western Junior earlier this summer. 

“I was thinking even par would be good today,” said Tanner Kesterson, who shot 70 in Round 1, “but if you’re making putts out here, you can go low.” 

That’s the approach Schniederjans adopted in the opening round. After hearing that good friend Bobby Wyatt shot 57 last week at the Alabama Boys Junior, and after Stuart Appleby surged to victory Sunday at the Greenbrier Classic with a closing 59, Schniederjans arrived on the first tee with similar intentions: He wanted to post a sub-60 round. 

A few stray drives derailed his pursuit, however, and he settled for a 66. 

“The greens were soft, no wind, the greens were rolling well and I’m putting well,” said Schniederjans, 17, of Powder Springs, Ga. “So I’ve got the game to (shoot 59), but I just wanted to try as hard as I could and see what happened. It worked out pretty well for the first round of the tournament.

“It’s not hard to shoot 70 out there, but it’s the 66 that will kind of separate me.” 

• • • 

Mariah Stackhouse described her return to Sycamore Hills as “something of a homecoming.” Members flowed out of the clubhouse to welcome her back to a course where she helped Georgia roll to victory at the USGA State Team Championship last September. 

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Mariah Stackhouse

Nearly a year later, she’s aiming for another title. 

Boosted by two late birdies, Stackhouse opened with a 2-under 70 to share the first-round lead with UCLA commit Kyle Roig. 

“It’s kind of like playing a home course,” said Stackhouse, No. 11 in Golfweek’s rankings, “and it definitely made me a little more relaxed.” 

Stackhouse, 16, of Riverdale, Ga., made headlines in April when she received an invite to the LPGA’s Mojo 6 Tournament. Playing a scenic layout along the Caribbean Sea was a treat, and so, too, was walking down the red carpet during the pairings party. 

The competition? That was tough, as expected. 

A match against Suzann Pettersen, a six-time winner on the LPGA. A match against Cristie Kerr, recent winner of the LPGA Championship. A match against Amanda Blumenherst, the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur champ. 

“It was just an experience to play with them and interact with them,” Stackhouse said. “You can learn a lot by how they practice.” 

Stackhouse and Roig were one clear of long-hitting Casie Cathrea and Kendall Martindale, who qualified for this championship only after winning a PGA Junior Series event in June.

Only four players broke par in the opening round. Kristen Park, recent winner of the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions, and Emma Talley were among those who shot 73. Ariya Jutanugarn, Golfweek’s second-ranked junior, shot 76 in Round 1.

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