JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – When 13-year-old Will Thomson plays a casual round of golf or competes against his peers in prep and junior tournaments, he typically does so on layouts that measure less than 7,000 yards.
But on occasion, when Thomson really wants to test his mettle, he will go back to the tips with the big boys at about 7,400 yards, he said.
This week’s 114th U.S. Amateur Championship at historic Atlanta Athletic Club happens to be one of those times. On Monday, in the opening round of 36-hole stroke-play qualifying, Thomson shot a 5-over 77 on the 7,437-yard Riverside Course.
I had a lot of long clubs into the greens, but hit a lot of good shots today, he said. They were just hard to get close to the pin with hybrids and long irons.
While such a round would leave many in the 312-player field muttering to themselves, few of them would have been asked to participate in a post-round interview. Thomson’s round was noteworthy mainly because he is the youngest qualifier in this championship’s history.
It was a lot of fun, the entire experience was awesome, said Thomson, of Pittsford, N.Y. Started off with a birdie on the first hole and that was exciting. It was a little bit of a grind, but it was fun.
Tom Thomson, Will’s father, said his son is taking the summer in stride.
He’s just 13, after all, he said. We’re trying to not be dramatic about all the hype.
Thomson’s summer schedule took an unexpected twist on July 7 when he shot 68-66–134 and was the low qualifier by four strokes in the 36-hole U.S. Amateur sectional at Mendon Golf Club in Honeoye Falls, N.Y. By doing so, Thomson displaced Ryota Ito, who played at 14 years, 1 month, 13 days, in 2004, as the championship’s youngest qualifier. Thompson turns 14 on Sept. 3, making him 13 years, 11 months and 8 days old as of the championship’s start.
On the evening after Thomson qualified, as father and son were driving to Niagara Falls, N.Y., to compete in another national junior championship qualifier, Thomson received an invitation to play in the prestigious Porter Cup.
I would say he’s been more excited than nervous about everything, Tom Thomson said. He’s just getting accustomed to being in the limelight.
We want him to enjoy this whole experience. The neat thing, I think for him, is all the different people associated with golf that he’s getting to meet.
In Monday’s opening round, with swing coach Joe Lusardi carrying his bag, Thomson birdied the 409-yard, par-4 10th hole, his first of the day. The remaining 17 holes featured one birdie, three bogeys and two double bogeys.
I was proud of him for hanging in there, Lusardi said.
Afterward, Thomson was asked what was the biggest difference between a nine-hole high school match and the nation’s oldest amateur championship. The course conditions stood out.
The length and difficulty of the course is so much more different, and it’s just a lot tougher, he said. The course is literally in perfect shape and the greens are just amazing. The fairways are awesome and the rough is great, too.
The pint-sized Thomson, who stands 5-foot-5 and weighs 117 pounds, began playing golf at age 3, tagging along with his mother, Kathy, to a nearby nine-hole par-3 course. His family has also hosted amateurs who competed in the annual Monroe Invitational, a 74-year-old tournament at Monroe Golf Club in Thomson’s hometown.
We would have three or four college kids staying with us for the week, Tom Thomson said. Will would hang around them, following them around the course. He just soaked it up.
Thomson said he began taking golf seriously at age 7 or 8 and began working with Lusardi at age 10. This summer’s schedule, though, was designed to be low-key.
In fact, Thomson nearly skipped the U.S. Amateur sectional qualifier. He already had a busy summer leading up to the qualifier and he debated whether to rest up for the Junior PGA Championship qualifier that was scheduled for the following day.
I said maybe you just need a day off, Tom Thomson said. But he wanted to play, so I just said, ‘Go have some fun.’
Thomson heeded his father’s advice, shooting a career-low 66 in the second round. Thomson said the Mendon course played to approximately 6,800 yards that day.
Thomson realizes he will grow stronger in the years to come, and that will help to provide the necessary distance to compete consistently from the back teeing ground. Lusardi believes Thomson is already beyond his years in some aspects.
To watch him, the strongest part of his game is how the thinks his way around the golf course, Lusardi said. He never analyzes, he thinks. Sometimes you forget he’s just 13 years old.
That is, until he stands alongside the big boys – but not for long.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.