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Billy Reed: Louisville native Justin Thomas — not yet 24 — among the favorites for upcoming Masters


LOUISVILLE — Even as a kid, Justin Thomas was a clothes horse. He liked to look sharp from head to toe. When he got a shoe contract with Foot-Joy, which allows its clients to design their own golf shoes, “he took that to a new level,” says his dad, Mike, the golf pro at Harmony Landing for 28 years and still Justin’s teacher.

As for his clothes, we can assume Justin is not exactly adverse to the color green since he wore it throughout his career at St. Xavier High in Louisville, where he stood out both in the classroom and on the golf course. But the green garment he wants the most can’t be bought.

It’s the jacket that annually goes to the champion of the Masters Tournament at the National Course in Augusta, Ga. This year’s classic event, the first of golf’s so-called “major” championships will be held April 6-9.

Only six years removed from his senior year at St. X, Justtin Thomas (who will turn 24 on April 29) is one of the Masters favorites after starting the year like a rocket (Twitter Photo)

Only six years removed from his senior year at St. X, Thomas (who will turn 24 on April 29) is one of the Masters favorites after starting the year like a rocket – and the story has a nice charitable twist to it.

Before the season-opening Safeway Open, Thomas announced he would donate $250 for every birdie or eagle he made in his first three events to Convoy of Hope, a charity dedicated to providing help to victims of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, the Bahamas, and the southeastern United State.

In his first three events of 2017, he finished eighth, first and tied for 23rd. He made 75 birdies and two eagles in 12 rounds, meaning he gave $19,250 to the Convoy of Hope.

After another so-so finish, Thomas won the SBS Tournament of Champions and the SONY Open back-to-back. He began the SONY tournament with a 59, tying the Tour record for a single round and becoming the youngest (23 years, eight months, and seven days) to accomplish that feat.

The incredible run shot him up to the world’s No. 8 ranking and gave him $3,802,167 in earnings. It also gave him license to do more trash-talking, which he has done his whole life. Recently Justin has worked with a sports psychologist to help him tone down emotions and not get so angry when he disappoints himself.

“I used to send kids out to Mike at Harmony Landing when it got real intricate with their swings,” says former St. X golf coach Marty Donlan. “Every time I went out there, Justin was there hitting ball.”

The quest for perfection drives most talented golfers not named John Daly. Sometimes it ruins them. In golf, perhaps more than any other sport, the line between being great or merely good is thin as a stiletto.

During Justin’s days at St. X, Athletics Director Alan Donhoff and Donlan (who retired after Justin’s freshman season) could see how much potential he had. Of course, considering that golf talent that has come through St. X over the years, that was nothing new.

But Justin separated himself from the other St. X stars in August, 2009, when he played in the Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour and became the third youngest player to make the cut in a Tour event (16 years, three months, and 24 days). That also was the year he won the Kentucky State High School championship.

“He was a really nice kid, just a little bitty guy,” remembers Donhoff. “He had a circle of friends that he went to our ball games with. He was a bright kid who worked hard in school.”

By the time he was a senior, Justin was good enough to just about name where he wanted to play in college. But instead of picking a university where the color green is revered, he opted for the crimson-and-white of Alabama, where he became a huge fan of football coach Nick Saban. (His dream foursome is his dad, Saban, and Carrie Underwood).

“We used the Nick Saban 24-hour rule,” said Mike. “When you win, you celebrate for 24 hours. Then it’s back to business.”

To outsiders, it must seem as if Justin’s career almost is preordained. From the time he left St. X in 2011 to this very day, his career trajectory has been steadily upward. At Tuscaloosa, he played on a national championship team and won the 2012 Haskins Award as the nation’s best collegiate player.

Leaving after three years with a 3.75 grade-point average, he needed little more than a year on the Web.com Tour, the sort of minor league of professional golf, to earn his PGA Tour card for 2015. Although he didn’t win in his first year, he earned more than $2 million, which will buy a lot of shoes and suits.

His first PGA Tour victory came in the 2016 CIMB Classic in Malaysia (which he successfully defended in January). For the year, he had 28 finishes in the money and 10 in the Top 10. He earned more than $4 million and stamped himself as a player to watch in 2017.

Then came the start that had the international golf world buzzing. It made his dad happy and proud, of course, but the golf pro in him adds a cautionary note.

“From what I’ve seen and heard, a lot of people don’t really realize how hard it is out there,” said Mike Thomas. “You can’t believe how good those guys are. After Justin finished 39th in Los Angeles, I heard a lot of people saying too bad he had a bad week. No. It was a great week. It’s just so much more competitive than people realize.”

If Justin has at times had trouble controlling his temper and/or his mouth, he also was known for his generosity long before his donation to Convoy of Hope. Since turning pro, he has supported the Boys & Girls Club of Kentuckiana, not to mention various junior-golf programs and tournaments. He also contributed to the new golf training center at St. X.

Justin’s success has not exactly gone unnoticed at his alma mater on Poplar Level Road.

“We had an assembly last week,” said Donhoff in mid-February. “The theme was ‘Band of Brothers,’ and we had a lot of our famous alums do video vignettes. When Justin’s video came up, the whole student body cheered like crazy.’

The only Louisville golfer ever to win a major championship also played at St. Xavier. That would be Bobby Nichols, the 1964 winner of the PGA Championship. (Yes, we like to consider Fuzzy Zoeller to be a hometown guy – and he is, sort of – but his home is New Albany.)

The Masters always is played at Augusta National, and this year the U.S. Open will be played June 15-18 in Erin, Wi.; the British Open July 20-23 at Royal Birkdale; and the PGA Championship Aug. 10-13 at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C..

A couple of weeks ago, Justin invited his dad to join him for a couple of practice rounds at Augusta. Said Mike,, “It’s a special place, for sure, and to share that moment with your son, well, it’s pretty incredible.”

Of this year’s major venues, the Augusta National course might be the one that best fits Justin’s game, not to mention his wardrobe needs.

“He hits the ball high,” said Mike, “and that’s a big advantage at Augusta. The greens are so hard and fast that they don’t hold low balls. So we’ll just go down there and see what happens.”

billy-reed

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby


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