Thomas' fireworks begin with Haskins Award

Alabama's Justin Thomas during the final round of stroke play at the 2012 NCAA Championship.

Alabama's Justin Thomas during the final round of stroke play at the 2012 NCAA Championship.

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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Justin Thomas arrived home late Sunday evening from Northern Ireland. He was only in his native Kentucky for a few hours, though, before departing for another adventure.

The Thomas family – like many on this Fourth of July week – was bound for a week of resort living. This wasn’t just any vacation, though.

Thomas was the guest of honor Monday evening at The Greenbrier Resort, where he received the Haskins Award as college golf’s top player. For the first time, the award was accompanied by a sponsor exemption into this week’s Greenbrier Classic on the PGA Tour.

Thomas arrived at his Goshen, Ky., home around 11:30 p.m. Sunday after departing earlier in the day from Northern Ireland, where he represented the United States at the Palmer Cup. He and his family left at 5 a.m. Monday to make the approximately six-hour drive to White Sulphur Springs.

Thomas received the award at a dinner attended by former Haskins Award winners, including former Open Championship winner Justin Leonard; the award’s committee at Country Club of Columbus (Ga.); representatives from the award’s sponsor, Stifel Nicolaus; about a dozen members of the Thomas family, including Justin’s father, Mike, and grandfather, Paul, both of whom are longtime PGA professionals, and head coach Jay Seawell of Alabama, where Thomas is a rising sophomore.

“I knew how big a deal it was, but I didn’t really realize it until I got here,” Thomas said. “It’s a huge honor that my name is never going to leave that trophy.”

He joins the likes of Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange, Jay Haas, Scott Simpson, Bob Tway, Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Stewart Cink, Tiger Woods, Matt Kuchar, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell, Hunter Mahan and Bill Haas as Haskins Award winners.

Thomas, No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, won four times as a freshman at Alabama. He claimed his collegiate debut at the Carpet Capital Collegiate, then won three spring events: the Puerto Rico Classic, SEC Championship and NCAA Southeast Regional. Thomas also won the prestigious Jones Cup, one of the nation’s top amateur events, earlier this year. Though that event is not considered in the Haskins selection (which is based only on college results), it is further proof that Thomas has been the top U.S. amateur in 2012.

“Justin is a special young man,” Seawell said. “He is a great teammate. He is a leader. He has a (grade-point average) of over 3.7. Yes, he won some tournaments, but his character is impeccable.”

Leonard, the 1997 Open Championship winner, was the dinner’s keynote speaker. He began by reading off every name on the Haskins trophy, which was first awarded in 1971. He talked about the honor of being associated with those past winners and the respect one is shown by earning an award that's decided by a vote of peers, not mathematical rankings.

Thomas drew a laugh when he thanked Leonard for speaking at the awards dinner. “I don’t know if this is embarrassing or not. I just remember watching golf when I was little and you were sure-fire my favorite player because you had the same first name,” Thomas said. “I remember watching tournaments, looking at the top of the leaderboards and thinking, ‘Justin, I have to like him.’ ”

Thomas will go from idolizing Leonard to competing against him later this week. The Greenbrier Classic will be Thomas’ second PGA Tour start. His first came at the 2009 Wyndham Championship. Thomas, then 16, shot a first-round 65, made the 36-hole cut and finished 78th.

“I’m a lot more mature than I was then,” Thomas said. “I feel like I’m a lot better player. I remember my emotions from that week, and hopefully I can learn from that. It’s still a tournament, and I’m just going to try and go play the best I can.”

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