Before last year, only two Kentuckians had ever won a major championship on the PGA Tour. It had been five decades since a player from Kentucky had claimed one of golf’s most prestigious prizes.
Over the course of a rousing 2017, Justin Thomas changed all that while establishing himself as one of the rising stars in professional golf.
In August, the 5-foot-10, 145-pound St. Xavier High School product won the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte. In so doing, Thomas joined Louisville’s Bobby Nichols (1964 PGA Championship) and Lexington’s Gay Brewer (1967 Masters) as the only Kentuckians who have won PGA Tour majors.
Overall in 2017, Thomas, 24, won five times on the PGA Tour; captured the the FedEx Cup for leading the season points standings; and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year.
For those reasons, Justin Thomas has been elected the 2017 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year in a vote of media members from across the commonwealth.
“What a breakout year for Justin,” wrote Keith Farmer of WLEX-TV. “He checks almost every box for what this award embodies.”
Added Paul Rogers, the University of Louisville radio play-by-play announcer: “Justin Thomas had a phenomenal year on the PGA Tour. No Kentuckian ever had a year like it. Few from anywhere else (have had a year like it), for that matter.”
In the Sports Figure voting, Thomas scored a 225-point victory over runner-up Lamar Jackson, the University of Louisville quarterback who led the nation in total offense (5,261 yards) while becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist for a second straight year.
U of L baseball star Brendan McKay, who swept all seven major national player of the year awards in his sport, finished third.
“The top three (in the voting) are jaw-droppingly special,” wrote Fred Cowgill of WLKY-TV in Louisville. “In any other year, they could easily all be number ones.”
Bidding to be named Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year for a second consecutive year, Jackson finished second even though he was named on more (122) of the 151 ballots cast than Thomas (113). However, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner had 15 first-place votes compared to 88 for the golfer — and voting is weighted to give more points to first-place votes.
“Even though Lamar didn’t capture the Heisman Trophy this time, he actually was even a better player in 2017,” wrote Jamie Vaught of KySportsStyle.com.
Added Les Dixon of The Times-Tribune in Corbin: “Jackson is the BEST college football player I’ve seen that has played for an in-state school.”
U of L’s McKay was stellar as both a pitcher (11-3, 2.56 ERA) and hitter (.341 batting average with 18 home runs) while leading the Cardinals (53-12) to the College World Series.
McKay was “one of those rare baseball players you never take your eye off when he’s on the field,” wrote Ryan Lemond of the syndicated Kentucky Sports Radio program.
Still, most of the voters decided it was Thomas who represented the best in Kentucky sports in 2017.
The former University of Alabama star served notice that his 2017 would be special when he shot a 59 in the first round of the Sony Open in Hawaii in January. He proceeded to card 64, 65 and 65 over the following three rounds to win the event with the lowest 72-hole score (253) in PGA Tour history.
Thomas, who grew up in Goshen in Oldham County, helped the United States win the Presidents Cup in September over a team of international stars by winning three matches while halving a fourth.
His 2017 season earnings, $9,921,560, ranked first on the PGA Tour.
“A major, a 59 and the FedEx Cup. Who’s playing for second in this poll?” wrote Terry Meiners of WHAS radio.
Added Larry Vaught of Vaughtsviews.com: “(Thomas) had a dominant year on the PGA Tour like few have had. No way to vote for anyone else.”
Justin Thomas is the 2017 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year.