Mike Thomas has seen hundreds of golf swings in nearly 30 years as a teaching professional. But there are two swings he knows better than his own; each of them belong to his son, Justin.
Justin, a three-time winner in the 2016-2017 PGA Tour season, propelled himself into the final group in the final round of the 117th U.S. Open by shooting a third-round 63. Justin, who will be paired with Brian Harman, stunned the Erin Hills gallery with a pair of pants that bore a striking resemblance to pink “peeps” Easter candy, then shocked them with the lowest score in relation to par in U.S. Open history. He punctuated his 31-32-63 with a spectacular 299-yard second shot to the 18th green and sank a six-foot putt for eagle.
The 24-year-old is second in the PGA Tour’s FedEx standings and seems on the verge of the success that experts predicted since Justin was a precocious junior star and All-America selection at the University of Alabama, where he helped lead the Crimson Tide to the 2013 national championship.
“Just going out for a little walk,” Mike said as he strolled along a path near the Erin Hills clubhouse. One minute later, the announcement rang out to a raucous chorus of applause, shouts and cheers.
“Next on the tee, from Goshen, Ken-tuck-ee, Justin Thomas…”
Mike, the head golf professional at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Ky., is the son of Paul Thomas, the former head pro at Zanesville Country Club in Ohio. Paul played in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club. Mike played in a U.S. Junior Amateur. Eventually, Justin would be runner-up in the 2010 Junior Amateur, a semifinalist in the 2012 U.S. Amateur and a member of the victorious 2013 USA Walker Cup Team.
Mike didn’t put the cut-down 2-wood in his son’s hand to perpetuate a third generation in the family business. He did it because he and his wife, Jani, couldn’t keep their toddler away from the course. Mike nurtured their son’s love of golf through an instruction regimen comprised of simple pointers, gentle reminders, a message of self-reliance and unlimited access to the Harmony Landing and its practice range. The regimen has gone largely unchanged, right down to instilling a sense of self-reliance about his game.
“Justin has always been driven to succeed,” said Mike. “I never pushed it on him and am always here to help, but he does have to be able to fix his own swing when he has trouble in the middle of a round. We just wanted to be sure that he enjoyed himself on the course.”
He’s always enjoyed himself off the course, where he is equally famous for his strong social-media game, pranks on his fellow Tour pros, and, of course, his yearly wish-we-could-have-fun-like-that Spring Break hijinks with pals Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Smylie Kaufman.
As fun-loving as he may be with his crew, Justin is dead serious about his profession.
“I’ve always just loved playing and practicing,” he said. “I am too small for football and basketball, but that isn’t it. I just love playing golf. I am proud to be part of the game that my grandfather and my dad play. I am passionate about winning, especially the U.S. Open. It would be like a dream to be able to win on Father’s Day.”
Mike is also trying to work improve Justin’s other swing: the moments when his emotion and competitiveness have an adverse effect on his golf game.
“He’s got to save that energy, manage the competitive fire,” said Mike. “I know that it means a lot to him to win this championship. When he was younger, like most young people, he just wasn’t wired to make rational decisions yet. There was never a flag that he wouldn’t shoot away from.”
Like most sons, Justin has not always heeded Mike’s advice to be patient. But Justin has benefited from wisdom passed down from veterans on Tour, as well as another father figure who knows something about winning USGA championships. Justin spent three hours with Jack Nicklaus, who shared with him his philosophy about knowing when to take chances and when to take your foot off the pedal in the pursuit of victory in a U.S. Open.
“It really helped me improve my mental approach to the game,” he said. “My dad and I talk about it and sometimes I can’t fight my nature to be aggressive, but when Mr. Nicklaus offers advice, I would be an idiot not to listen.”
Mike and Justin share an easy bond. No matter what happens on the golf course, they are father and son, first and always.
“It is always great to see him win, as a reward for his hard work, and of course it would be special to see him win a U.S. Open,” said Mike. “But I don’t base my happiness on whether Justin wins golf tournaments. We just want him to be a good person and the golf will take care of itself. It isn’t any harder to be nice than it is to be a jerk,” Mike said.
Justin finished signing every autograph, with penmanship that is a genteel throwback to another time. He shared tips and advice with every kid who asked for a minute. Then father and son went out for a little walk.
David Chmiel is manager of member content. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org