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Inside the Ropes

Local golf fans get an insider’s view of PGA life from pro Justin Thomas

The 23-year-old pro returns to hometown to promote junior golf program, tourney


 
(May 2017)
Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – At only 23 years old, Goshen, Ky., native Justin Thomas has become a pro golfing sensation over the past year. The Louisville St. Xavier High School star played only two years of college golf at the University of Alabama before turning pro in 2013 and joining the PGA Tour in 2015.
In just 12 events, Thomas has won three tournaments and earned five top-10 finishes. In January, he also became the youngest player to shoot a round of 59 and one of only seven players in PGA history to do so. He has four career PGA wins.
Thomas is off to a stellar start this season, repeating his victory at the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur and notching back-to-back victories in Hawaii – the SBS Tournament of Champions and at the Sony Open. His round of 59 came at the latter event in January.
In late April, he was third on the PGA Tour money list at $4.3 million, third in FedExCup standings and 11th in the World Golf Rankings.

Photo by Don Ward

Goshen, Ky., native and pro golfer Justin Thomas (second from right) poses with D’Shawn Johnson (far right), executive director of First Tee of Louisville and others following the program April 20 at Big Springs Country Club in Louisville.

Thomas was coming off his best Masters finish, a tie for 22nd at Augusta National. He then spent the next week on spring break in the Bahamas with fellow PGA Tour golfers Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Smylie Kaufman.
Thomas flew to Louisville on Wednesday, April 19. He played a round of golf with his father, Mike, and grandfather, Paul Thomas of Ohio, at Harmony Landing on Thursday prior to attending the fundraiser that evening at Big Springs. He conducted a clinic for junior golfers on Friday afternoon prior to the tournament Saturday at Harmony Landing.
It has been a while since Thomas slept in his own bed in Goshen. In fact, his success has kept him away from his native Kentucky for more than a year. But the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., resident returned to Louisville in April to host his second American Junior Golf Association event and take part in a one-on-one interview as part of a fundraising benefit for The First Tee of Louisville, an organization to promote golf and life skills among the area’s youth.
Wave 3 TV sportscaster Kent Taylor emceed the latter event, “Tales of the Tin Cup,” on April 20 where he interviewed Thomas and his father, Mike Thomas, who has served as golf pro at Harmony Landing Golf Course in Goshen for 28 years. The sit-down, conversation style interview took place before a large crowd at Louisville’s Big Springs Country Club.
The reception and dinner attracted many corporate sponsors and golf fans throughout the area, with proceeds going to the nonprofit organization.
D’Shawn Johnson, executive director of The First Tee of Louisville, said the organization serves more than 500 youths annually.
The organization conducts eight-week program sessions from March until November each year at Shawnee, Seneca and Bobby Nichols Golf Courses in Louisville. Participants learn the golf skills and life skills while engaged with empowering coaches and character-building programming.
The programs are offered to children ages 6-17. The First Tee of Louisville also visits up to 25 Jefferson County Public Schools each year, interacting with approximately 10,000 students during their physical education classes.

Photo by Don Ward

Justin Thomas is pictured after his recent PGA Tour victory in Hawaii.

All of the programs are led by certified coaches, many of which are PGA and LPGA pros. The coaches are trained specifically for their roles with The First Tee, where a focus is put on how to be a mentor, empowering participants to make healthy choices, develop skills and encourage lifelong learning.
The lessons focus on developing physical, emotional and social skills, while also gaining the lifelong ability to play the game of golf. Nearly 75 percent of parents of participants in the program report positive improvements in their child’s communication skills, confidence and responsibility. More than half saw an improvement in their child’s grades and social skills.
Founded in 2005, First Tee of Louisville offers various sponsorship levels to corporate and individual donors. It costs the organization just more than $150 for one child to participate in the three eight-week programs.
The appearance at the fundraising dinner of guests of Thomas’ caliber help brings attention to the program, Johnson said. “The money we raise for this program comes entirely from donations,” he told the crowd. Previous speakers to the event include Fuzzy Zoeller, Nancy Lopez and Butch Harmon.
Many guests filled out contribution cards, and Thomas himself donated $10,000 to the cause.
Thomas answered questions for more than an hour on a variety of topics, while his father, sitting next to him on the stage, often chimed when prompted.
Thomas credited his parents for not pushing him into a career in golf, even though his father was a golf pro at the local course. “At age 7 or 8, I saw parents pushing their kids, but the biggest thing for me was junior golf. They let me do what I wanted to do, it just so happened I liked to spend every day at the golf course. My dad worked all day at the course, and when he got done, we’d hop in the golf cart and go play a few holes.”
His father said last year he asked Justin to put his name on the American Junior Golf Association tournament at Harmony Landing, and he agreed. “I’m very proud of that.”
Justin said, “AJGA did so much for me, like getting me sponsors and getting me where I am today.”
While in Louisville, Thomas said he stopped by to see the new golf facility at his high school, where he won both the individual and team titles. He won his first ever college tournament playing for the Crimson Tide.
His father said of Justin, “I was always impressed that he was never intimidated, and when he went pro, he just felt like he belonged with the best.”
Justin said he tries not to worry about winning and losing. “All I can do is prepare myself and do the best I can. It is what it is. There are so many variables at work on the golf course as to whether you win.” But he added that after having won a PGA tournament now, “I’m not as nervous out there.”
Both father and son noted the dozens of calls and texts and tweets they received from supporters in Louisville after Justin won his first tournament. “I couldn’t believe it. We were just inundated,” Mike said.
Justin added: “The overwhelming support we get from Louisville, you really can’t put into words.”
Unfortunately for area golf fans, the closest PGA event to Louisville is The Memorial in Columbus, Ohio. Thomas bemoaned that fact, saying, “A lot of guys (on the PGA Tour) get to play in their hometown, and I don’t. It’s a bummer. I hate it. So I don’t get to come home very often.”
Asked about his favorite course, and he said Augusta National, home of The Masters. He has played two Masters tournaments so far, “but I’ve taken a lot of visits there to play the course. It’s a very special place.”
He became friends with Tiger Woods and said he has “picked his brain” about the course. “There’s a handful of places I feel like I’m going to win, and that’s one of the places. I want to win The Masters.”
Regardless of whether he ever does, Thomas’ early success already has proven to be an inspiration to Louisville area golfers, both young and old. Asked what has fueled his success, he replied, “The hard work is what gets you an opportunity like this. But you also need to believe in yourself and believe you belong there. It’s an inner confidence in your own abilities that can take you far.”

For more information about the youth golf program, visit the website: www.TheFirstTeeLouisville.org.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: info@RoundAbout.bz.

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