Justin Thomas used to call his father when he arrived at junior tournaments, and the conversation almost always started the same way.
“What’s the number?”
The father wasn’t asking what score it would take to win, the length of the course or even the entry fee. The number in question was how many greens his son would be able to reach in regulation, and not just on the par 4s.
“I was guaranteed to hit driver into at least one par 3,” Thomas said.
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Mike Thomas was in the gallery along the ninth fairway at Waialae Country Club when his 23-year-old son nearly left his feet while launching a 358-yard drive, setting up a wedge into the par 5. It was only his seventh-longest drive during his time in paradise.
This Aloha State adventure was the best two weeks of Thomas’ career. The former St. Xavier High School and University of Alabama star joined Ernie Els as the only players to sweep the Hawaii swing and became the first player since Tiger Woods in 2009 to win by at least three shots in consecutive weeks on the PGA Tour. Thomas rose to No. 8 in the world and he is the third-ranked American behind Dustin Johnson (No. 3) and Jordan Spieth (No. 5).
“Unforgettable,” Thomas said of the last two weeks.
That goes for his parents, too, mainly because they had yet to see him win on the PGA Tour. His other two victories were in Malaysia, so Mike and Jani Thomas had to stay up until the early morning hours to watch him beat Adam Scott one year, Hideki Matsuyama the next.
Watching in person with an ocean view is better.
Mike Thomas has been the head pro at Harmony Landing outside Louisville for the last 28 years, and golf is really all his son has ever known. Justin was not even 2 when his father gave him a cut-down driver with a wooden head to whack golf balls around the house and at Harmony Landing. As a toddler, when the boy wanted to play he would tell his mother, “Bag of balls, bag of balls.”
But the boy fell in love with golf by himself.
“I made sure there was no formal instruction until he asked for it,” Mike Thomas said. “There were a lot more little lessons than big lessons.”
Part of the reason is that he had a golf shop to run, members to serve and lessons to give. A larger part was that Mike Thomas had seen too many kids pushed too hard and he didn’t want to be that parent.
“I decided that I wanted to be his best friend more than his father,” he said. “There were times I had to get on him as a parent. But mostly we had just had a lot of fun.”
Even now, when he takes time away from Harmony Landing to watch his son on tour, he stands quietly behind Thomas and caddie Jimmy Johnson without saying a word unless his son asks him to shoot video of a swing with his phone. They will look at it together. Mike Thomas tends to wait to see if his son can figure it out first.
His fondest memories are not the tournaments he won as a junior, but the time they spent on the golf course in twilight hours, sometimes playing nine holes, other times creating games by seeing who could throw a golf ball closest to the pin.
Golf has been in the family for three generations. Paul Thomas was the longtime club pro at Zanesville Country Club in Ohio who qualified for the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Mike Thomas played at Morehead State and competed in college against Kenny Perry, but his aspirations of playing the PGA Tour didn’t last long. He spent one year on the mini-tours before working fulltime as a PGA professional. He took three jobs, in Ohio and Pittsburgh, before moving to Kentucky.
Justin was in elementary school, still swinging away, when his father began a tradition of keeping golf balls from every tournament he won. There were 128 balls at Harmony Landing when they left for Hawaii.
The father headed home with five more golf balls — and he wanted six.
Two were from the victories at the SBS Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open, bringing the victory count to 130. A special display will hold the golf ball that Thomas rolled in from 15 feet for eagle on the final hole of his opening round for a 59. Another ball is from the 36-hole scoring record (123) he set on Friday, and the fifth is from the 72-hole record (253) Thomas set Sunday.
“I wanted the one after Saturday for the 54-hole record,” Mike Thomas said with a laugh. “But Justin said that wasn’t a record, it was only a tie.”
It’s tempting to think back to the toddler who said “Bag of balls” the way most kids ask for candy, and see where his son is now.
But only the stage has changed.
“The feeling is the same,” Mike Thomas said. “I know this is the PGA Tour, but when he had a chance to win as an 8-year-old at a U.S. Kids event, it was like, ‘This is really cool.’ … As a parent, I’m just glad he’s healthy, I’m glad he’s safe and I’m glad he’s doing what he wants to do. What else could any parent want?”