It’s not often a player can impact major championship golf history without playing a stroke, but you could argue that the PGA Tour’s Justin Thomas accomplished exactly that.
In 2010 Thomas was a young prodigy out of Kentucky scheduled to play in the U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay. Another young golfer, who Thomas had made friends with, had recommended he contact a local, Michael Greller, to caddy for him during the week. The two of them fit well together, and Thomas used Greller at the Amateur the next two years.
In 2011, Jordan Spieth, another young high school talent, was playing near Seattle and looking to repeat as the U.S. Junior Amateur Champion. He reached out to Thomas for the name of a caddy he might use. Thomas recommended Greller, and Spieth made it two in a row. A year later Spieth left the University of Texas to turn professional, and Greller gambled on the future, quitting his teaching job to travel the Tour. Two major wins later Spieth/Greller have taken on the personality of notable player/caddy combinations like Woods/Williams and Mickelson/Mackay.
Greller admitted if Thomas had turned professional before Spieth he probably would have cast his lot with the former. It might have been an equally rewarding decision, because Spieth and Thomas have traveled a similar path.
As a 16-year old high schooler in Kentucky, Thomas, the son of a club professional, qualified for the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship and made the cut. At 16, Spieth played in the Byron Nelson and made the cut. Spieth spent one year at the University of Texas, helping the Longhorns win the NCAA Championship. Thomas re-upped for a second year at Alabama and helped deliver an NCAA Championship for the Tide.
His collegiate credentials were impressive. He is the all-time stroke average leader at Alabama, won six tournaments in 25 starts, shot under par better than 60% of the time in college and was a two-time All American.
When Thomas turned professional in 2013 he was seen as having an unlimited ceiling. In one year on the Web.com Tour, he collected seven top 10s and a win late in the season at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship. The following week he locked up his ticket to the PGA Tour at the Web.Com Tour Championship, finishing fifth for the year.
In that same year, he opened some eyes even wider when he tied for 10th at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego. His rookie year on the PGA Tour was marked by steady play, with a 32nd-place finish overall. He showed his professional youth in learning how to close on Sunday. During the year he was among the best on Tour in scoring average through the first three rounds, but slipped to 79th in the final round.
At the John Deere Classic, an event that gave Spieth his first Tour victory, Thomas shot a first-day 63. With comparisons obvious, he was asked if Spieth’s early success offered inspiration. “I wouldn’t say inspired, I would say motivated,” he said. “But to see a young guy win, I would be like, ‘oh, I’ve played against him,’ it’s motivating, but now I’m out here and if anybody else wins, I’m like, I should beat them. I feel like I should.”
When Thomas found his way onto the PGA Tour the next season, he seldom went home, playing in an impressive 30 events. At 5’10” and less than 150 pounds, he has surprising length off the tee. In his first year, he ranked 15th in driving distance and currently sits 30th for 2016. But the pattern in his freshman year on Tour was clear. When Thomas missed a cut, he almost always was under 50% in fairways found. This year that vulnerability remains in place, but Thomas has erased one deficiency in his stats.
Playing in Malaysia’s CIMB Classic in November of 2015, the third event of the 2016 season, Thomas survived a Sunday charge from Adam Scott. His 26-under par total was good for a one-shot win. He birdied three of the last four holes but needed a six-foot par save at 18 for the title. His fairways-hit stats were in the 60s three of the four days, with only a 50% mark on Friday. Oddly, those seven fairways in 14 opportunities produced nine birdies and an eagle, equaling the best round of his professional career, 11-under 61.
“I still can’t believe what happened,” Thomas told the press afterward. “I made that par to clinch the title. I don’t care how I got it done; it just feels awesome.”
At his father’s club in Kentucky, there is a rack on the wall with a golf ball signifying every tournament win Thomas has had since he was a junior. The total stands at 126. If he stays on the Spieth trajectory, to paraphrase a line from Jaws, they’re going to need a bigger rack.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.