PGA Championship

Justin Thomas - The Hometown Kid

May 14, 2024


Jeff Babineau

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Forget the words of Thomas Wolfe. You actually can go home again.

Justin Thomas, proud Louisville native, is proof of that. He may take his mail in Jupiter, Florida, these days, but home to him will always be Kentucky, and Louisville, and Valhalla Country Club will forever reside in a special place in his golf soul.

It was here at Valhalla in 2000 that Thomas, barely as tall as the gallery ropes, witnessed an epic PGA Championship shootout between two pros from Southern California. Bob May refused to blink on that memorable Sunday, and his opponent, a young pro named Tiger Woods, seeking his third consecutive major, was just too stubborn to give in. Woods eventually prevailed in a three-hole playoff. Thomas, only 7 at the time, was glued to it all.

“I would say this tournament at this golf course is a lot of reason, I feel like, for my love for professional golf and wanting to win majors and golf tournaments,” Thomas said on Tuesday. “It’s crazy how fast it’s gotten to this week.”

The major championship in one’s back yard is a rarity for a pro, and Thomas wants to soak it all in, even if his week is filled with time commitments. He did a media presser on Tuesday morning, and his Tuesday evening was booked, too. As a two-time winner of the PGA, he was off to attend the PGA Champions Dinner at Churchill Downs. The crowds have been out in force already this week, and Thomas is their guy.

“I played nine holes with him yesterday and I play a lot of golf with him,” said Jordan Spieth, Thomas’s Ryder Cup partner and longtime friend. “Yesterday felt different. There was a massive amount of support for him already, and I know that will just continue as the week goes on.

“I know he's maybe if there's one tournament this year left that he would want to win, it would be this one here, and it would be something that would be one of the coolest moments of his life, maybe forever. Just the significance of it ...  at the same time, he's pretty good at shutting out distractions and keeping his head down, so I think he's embracing it.”

Thomas played in his first PGA in 2015, the year after it last was staged at Valhalla, and this marks the ninth consecutive year he has played in the championship, winning it in 2017 (Quail Hollow) and 2022 (Southern Hills, in a playoff).

At 31, Thomas has won 15 times on the PGA Tour, including some big titles, but he has not won since beating Will Zalatoris in that playoff in Tulsa for the PGA Championship crown in 2022. The majors have not been kind to Thomas of late. In his last seven major starts, he has missed more cuts (four) than he has made (three), and his best finish in that stretch is a tie for 37th (2022 U.S. Open).

He has been through the ringer golf-wise, struggling at various times with putting, ball striking and finishing off rounds, but he believes there is still lots of good golf ahead of him, and that soon he will turn it around. One area that Thomas knows he needs to work on: Not expecting too much, and not being so hard on himself. He finds it is something easier said than done.

“It’s tough,” said Thomas, who in 12 PGA Tour starts this year counts five finishes of T-12 or better. “It’s a lot harder than improving your wedge game. It’s not like I can just go out and set a TrackMan down and work on hitting my numbers.

“I think at least I’ve learned that you just can’t want it to get better and it magically gets better. I think I’ve ... kind of realizing at certain times, like it’s OK acknowledging that I’m feeling certain things or thinking a certain way, and then doing something about it, or trying to shift how I’m thinking about it, or what I’m doing.”

Mainly, Thomas said you cannot simply flip a switch into a better attitude, so having one takes an effort. All the greats of any sport, he pointed out, “that's what they do better, did better, than anybody else is they stayed in the moment and processed better than anybody – and they also can't explain how they do it, because it's just all they know.”

He cites Scottie Scheffler, the current World No. 1, as being particularly skilled in staying laser-focused, and keeping in his own little bubble when he plays. It is something he deeply admires in Scheffler, already a four-time winner this season.

“Not only is his golf unbelievable, but that I think has a lot to do with how well he plays because he just stays in his own world and stays in his process no matter what's going on,” Thomas said. “He trusts in his ability, that kind of thing. So that's what I'm continuing to work toward for myself.”

Thomas’ grandfather, Paul Thomas, was a PGA of America Golf Professional, and Justin’s dad, Mike, followed Paul into the family business for years as the Head Golf Professional at Harmony Landing in Kentucky, where young Justin played so much he wore out the grass at the place.

Thomas could play Harmony in his sleep. He is not as familiar with Valhalla, where he got to visit and play in his youth as an occasional special birthday gift. He views Valhalla as a special place given what it always meant to his development. He was only 7 that day he watched Tiger win at Valhalla, but he knew then that playing on the PGA Tour is something he wanted to pursue.

“I remember just being probably inspired, being very in awe,” said Thomas, who all these years later counts Woods, his Florida neighbor, as one of his closest friends. “I just hadn't been to anything that big. I mean, the energy that week was crazy.

“As a 7-year-old, that's pretty cool to hear in person. You think you can do anything when you're that age, but watching Tiger and Bob May duel it out and how it all ended and me being a Tiger fan that I was, it was about as perfect of a week as I could have imagined ... not that you know what you want to do when you're 7 years old, but I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to play golf.”

This week, Thomas is at yet another PGA Championship at Valhalla, this time in a far different role than he filled 24 years ago.

“I take a lot of pride in being from Louisville,” he said, “And I've enjoyed the couple opportunities I've had to watch tournaments out here, and just, yeah, the people (I’m) seeing this week, whether it's volunteers on the tee boxes or working the clubhouse or in the gallery, whatever it may be.

“It's enjoyable. Like I said, I'm very happy to be the one that's on this side of the ropes or taking part in the championship versus the one that's watching from the other side of the ropes.”