Thomson relishes the challenge of U.S. Amateur

Will Thomson, 13, became the youngest player to play in the U.S. Amateur on Monday. He shot a 5-over 77.

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Will Thomson’s smile revealed a mouthful of metal. He’s 13, so what did you expect?

The braces, which have been straightening his pearly whites for about a year, are coming off in October. The training wheels on Thomson’s game are long gone.

Last month, Thomson, a native of Pittsford, N.Y., became the youngest U.S. Amateur qualifier. The 66 in his second qualifying round set a personal best. Just last week he lowered that figure to 64 in defending his title at the New York State Boys Amateur (by a whopping 21 strokes).

But that round was from 5,900 yards. The Riverside Course at Atlanta Athletic Club measured nearly 7,400 yards, and Thomson, who is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 115 pounds, wore out his 5-iron and hybrids. He posted a 5-over 77 in his first round of 36-hole stroke-play qualifying.

“I feel like I played better than I scored,” Thomson said afterward. “But it was fun. The entire experience was awesome.”

Thomson’s round started promisingly enough. After striping a drive off the 10th tee (his first hole), he sidled up next to his caddie/coach, Joe Lusardi, and said, “I hit it in the fairway. Yes!”

It was the pure exuberance of a young man enjoying the moment. Then he stuffed an 8-iron to 6 feet and poured in the birdie putt as if it were no big deal. Reality settled in as he made two double bogeys on his opening nine, but Thomson hung in there and planted a 5-iron to 3 feet at the 181-yard eighth hole for birdie.

“He’s fearless,” Lusardi said. “I’ve never met a kid who loves a challenge like he does.”

Thomson is challenged frequently at his home course, famed Oak Hill Country Club, which he plays from 6,800 yards, except for those occasions when “I go back to the tips with the big boys,” he said. What he lacks in distance, Thomson makes up for with a stellar short game. Despite being an eighth-grader, he already plays on the Mendon High School golf team. This summer, he became the youngest winner of the International Junior Masters and the youngest competitor at the Porter Cup.

“I forget sometimes that he’s only 13 years old,” Lusardi said.

Perhaps Thomson’s best trait is his love of the game, which was evident last summer when Thomson got to play Latrobe Country Club, the legendary course of Arnold Palmer.

“My seventh-grade friends who don’t know golf very well asked me why I went to meet the guy on TV who makes that lemonade-and-iced-tea drink,” Thomson said.

On the final day of the trip, Thomson and his party were given a tour of Arnie’s Barn by Palmer's brother, Jerry. Thomson even got to sit on the famous Pennzoil tractor. But the highlight of the trip occurred when Jerry was telling a story about his older brother in The King’s office. Here Thomson picks up the thread: “Mr. Palmer snuck into the office behind us, and he was sitting at his desk when we turned around,” Thomson said. “It was awesome.”

As for the picture he took with Palmer: “I posted it on Instagram,” Thomson said. “I got a few likes.”

He’d like to make a few more birdies in the second round of stroke-play qualifying on the Highlands Course and sneak into match play. But no matter how he plays, Thomson already has etched his name into the history books, and with time his body should catch up to his potential.

“I was never expecting to improve this much and have such a great summer,” he said.

It’s been a summer to smile about, even with all that metal on his teeth.

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