Alabama freshman Thomas wins Jones Cup

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

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Lee Knox, Cory Whitsett, Justin Thomas, Bobby Wyatt and Hunter Hamrick at the Jones Cup in St. Simons Island, Ga.

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Five things you need to know from the final round of the Jones Cup, where Alabama freshman Justin Thomas won one of amateur golf’s premier events:

1. YOU CAN CALL IT A COMEBACK: Justin Thomas started the final round five shots off Manav Shah’s lead. Thomas was still two behind as he played the 14th hole. Birdies on Nos. 14 and 15, and struggles by Shah, allowed Thomas to claim one of amateur golf’s biggest titles.

He finished at even-par 216 after a final-round 69. Shah, who shot 76 Sunday, finished second at 2-over 218.

“I just tried to play smart,” Thomas said. “I knew five shots could be made up out here. It’s the nature of the course. I just kept trying to hit fairways and greens. This whole week went by really fast, and it’s awesome.”

Thomas reached the par-5 14th in two shots, hitting the green with his 258-yard second shot before two-putting from 40 feet. He hit 7-iron to 15 feet on the par-3 15th for another birdie.

Shah was two shots ahead of the field when he made a 6-foot birdie putt on the par-4 13th. He double-bogeyed the 15th after hitting his tee shot over the green. He flew the green with his flop shot, the ball settling against the lip of a greenside bunker. He played out sideways, then two-putted from 50 feet. Shah bogeyed the next hole when he pushed his tee shot into the trees.

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2. CHANGE YOU CAN BELIEVE IN: Ocean Forest, site of the 2001 Walker Cup, is incredibly demanding. The winning score was over par in the previous three Jones Cups, despite a field featuring many of the world's best amateur golfers. Many of the fairways are lined by hazards, and the firm, fast greens are protected by bunkers.

The slightest mistake can lead to double bogeys, as Thomas found out. He had two in Saturday’s second round before making a slight swing change. Both doubles were caused by hooked shots.

He realized he was taking the clubface back closed during his takeaway, so he tried to feel like he was opening the face during the takeaway. He played the tournament’s final 25 holes in 5 under, making five birdies and one bogey.

“My finish is really what won me the tournament,” Thomas said. “I told myself I just had to stay in it because you never know what can happen.”

He made just a single bogey Sunday against four birdies.

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3. GOOD COMPANY: Thomas joins Kyle Stanley (2009), Patrick Reed (2010) and John Peterson (2011) as recent winners of this event. All were among the world’s top amateurs when they won.

Thomas also is among this season’s sterling freshman class, one of the best in recent memory. He’s No. 11 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings after his first semester of college golf. He won his collegiate debut, the Carpet Capital Invitational. Texas’ Jordan Spieth and Stanford’s Patrick Rodgers, both members of the 2011 U.S. Walker Cup team, and Washington’s Cheng-Tsung Pan also are among the freshmen who won college titles this past fall.

Thomas’s recent success has come after a summer amateur season that was below his standards.

“I putted miserably,” he said. “I’d have more than 30 putts almost every round. You can’t really contend when you do that. I’m trying to have a more positive mindset toward it. I feel like I was too hard on myself sometimes, and that would hurt me when it shouldn’t be.”

This was Thomas’ second major amateur win. He also won the 2010 Terra Cotta Invitational. He was runner-up at the 2010 U.S. Junior and won the 2009 FootJoy Boys Invitational, one of the AJGA’s major championships. That victory earned him a start at the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship, where he made the cut at age 16.

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4. SHAH’S LATE STRUGGLES: Shah, a UCLA sophomore, was three shots clear of the field at the start of the final round. He was two ahead when he made a 6-foot birdie putt on No. 13, but made double bogey on the par-3 15th and bogeyed the par-4 16th. He shot 76 to finish at 2-over 218.

Shah is hardly alone among players who’ve struggled down the stretch at this event.

In 2009, Morgan Hoffmann had a five-shot lead with three holes remaining, but played those holes 4 over and lost a playoff to Stanley, winner of this week's Waste Management Phoenix Open. Reed made triple bogey on each of the last two holes last year. He would’ve won outright if he had played the final two holes in 1 over.

Shah also was runner-up at the 2011 NCAA West Regional and Southern California Amateur. Patrick Cantlay, his UCLA teammate, won both events. Shah is redshirting this season after transferring from the University of San Diego.

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5. NOTABLES: England’s Ben Taylor finished third at 3-over 219 after a final-round 71. North Florida’s Kevin Phelan (74), who played with Shah in the final group, finished fourth at 4-over 220.

Auburn’s Michael Hebert (75), Alabama’s Bobby Wyatt (75) and Cal teammates Max Homa (70) and Michael Kim (71) tied for fifth at 5-over 221.

Curtis Thompson, the third member of the final pairing, didn’t hit a fairway until the 11th hole Sunday, shooting 80 to fall from second to 21st. He was 9 over on his 10 holes in the final round. Thompson was seeking his second consecutive major amateur title after a win at December’s Dixie Amateur.

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