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Harnessing the win: Justin Thomas' team helps steer his drive to succeed

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Published in Golf
Tuesday, 24 May 2022 03:36

TULSA, Okla. – Earlier this year, one of Justin Thomas’ playing partners in the Genesis Invitational pro-am asked him about his interests, what he’s into.

You know, some guys cop cars. Others collect expensive bottles of wine.

Thomas paused for a moment.

“I just want to win tournaments,” he said.

It sounds like a dangerous line of thinking in a sport in which Thomas wins only 8% of the time (and that’s among the best on Tour), but that’s how he’s wired. That’s how he’s been trained. His cold-blooded mentality, borrowed from his boyhood idol, has powered Thomas to this point – at 29, he’s already a sure-fire Hall of Famer – and he’s learning how to strike the balance of being insatiable while not intolerable. That being easier on himself doesn’t have to mean dulling his sharper edges.

“He plays golf for the right reason,” said his college coach, Alabama’s Jay Seawell. “He doesn’t play for a living. He plays for the life of that arena. He can tie himself up in a knot because he wants to win so badly that he gets ahead of himself. But his motor is to win. He doesn’t try to swing or play perfect – he plays to win. Any result other than that is unfulfilling.”

Winning is an elusive art, and Thomas seemed to master it early. Though some parents push their child too quickly into the spotlight, Thomas’ were content to watch him beat up on kids his age at the local and state level, each tournament title producing a series of memories and moments that were stored for later access. Beginning when his son was in elementary school, Mike Thomas kept golf balls from each of Justin’s victories and stored them in a display at his club, Harmony Landing in Goshen, Kentucky. By the time Justin left home to play for the Crimson Tide, the golf ball collection had reached the low-100s. 

All of that winning bred unrealistic expectations of more winning. In his first college tournament, Thomas roared home with a back-nine 30 to torch the field by five. But in his next start at Olympia Fields, he was already pressing: more, more, more. Unable to get cooking in the first round and growing increasingly frustrated, he compounded his mistakes by making a par-5 bogey, then played the last four holes in 4 over to shoot 75. Seawell pulled his young star aside. “Your attitude was so agitated because you wanted to win that you shot yourself out of it,” he said. Struggling again the next day, Thomas came to the same par 5, but this time he buckled down and made birdie, then added two more coming home to break par, a small victory. Afterward, the elder Thomas approached Seawell and thanked him for the tough love. It was just what Justin needed – and he needed to hear it from someone else.

“Justin was a quick study and coachable,” Seawell said. “That’s what I learned that day.”

Down seven shots, there was no way Justin Thomas was going to win the PGA Championship. Thomas didn't know that.

A decade later, at the PGA Championship, another member of Thomas’ team delivered a much-needed pep talk. Thomas had been on edge all week at Southern Hills. He was coming off a 23-under performance at the Byron Nelson, his seventh top-10 in 12 starts, but he was still trophy-less over the past 14 months. His lofty world ranking was dropping. He was growing restless. And he wasn’t about to let this old habit – winning – die hard. On the range Wednesday, Thomas’ normally reliable swing began to fail him; he couldn’t find the center of the clubface. He started snipping at his dad, until Mike suggested throwing down an alignment stick and just hitting shots: fades, draws, stingers, floaters. “Immediately I just started flushing it,” Justin said.

Thomas carried those good vibes into the first two rounds, when he shot a pair of 67s while playing on the worst side of the draw. Though he might not have been in the lead through 36 holes, no one carried more confidence into the weekend. Wicked weather blew into the area Saturday, with 25-mph winds out of a different direction, conditions that should have suited Thomas’ peerless shot-making. Instead, he made three late bogeys during a third-round 74 that dropped him seven shots back. It seemed like yet another mystifying score for Thomas, who despite his sterling Tour record had admittedly underwhelmed in the majors since his breakthrough at the 2017 PGA.

“It’s easy to start letting some doubt creep in,” he said, “like, All right, what’s going to happen? When is it going to happen? IS it going to happen?

Thomas stormed into the scoring tent, blew past the media and marched straight to the range.

That’s when his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, stepped in.

Despite working together for a few events previously, Thomas and Mackay are still in the feeling-out phase of their relationship. Thomas had enjoyed a successful run with another top caddie, Jimmy Johnson; Mackay, meanwhile, worked for 25 years with Phil Mickelson before parting ways in 2017. After hanging up his caddie bib, Mackay proved a natural fit as an on-course reporter on TV, and he told his wife, Jennifer, that the only player he’d put down the microphone for was Thomas. “He has more shots than anybody on Tour: high, low, left, right, whatever,” Mackay said. “His hands around the greens. The guy is really, really good, and I wanted to be around it.”

And now, his new boss needed him – even if Thomas didn’t yet know it.

“I’m fully confident in saying that I wouldn’t be standing here if he didn’t give me that talk,” Thomas said. “He was just like, Dude, you’ve got to stop being so hard on yourself. You’re in contention every single week we’re playing. You don’t have to be perfect. Just don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Added Mackay, “There was nothing to be worried about. There was nothing about his game that gave you pause or concern.”

Before the final round, Mike Thomas thanked Mackay for conveying the timely message. “I know as a father, if I’d have said it, he’d have been like, ‘You’re just stroking my ego’,” Mike Thomas said. “But Bones said them, and it hit home for him.”

It’s a credit to Justin Thomas, of course, that he’s mature enough to accept outside voices, that he’s capable of compartmentalizing the daily disappointment to realize the greater opportunity. But it also highlights how adroitly Mike Thomas navigates his unique responsibilities: He is the trusted swing coach of the No. 5-ranked player in the world, but he’s also a devoted father trying to guide his son through his wildest dreams.

“His mom [Jani] and dad did a really good job – they should write a book on how to come alongside a special talent,” Seawell said. “It’s the brilliance of them. They don’t have to be the center. Sometimes Mike has really good wisdom as a dad and coach, but he’s also really comfortable with other people coaching in those moments. It takes tremendous humility and trust. But Mike allows and appreciates others pouring into his son.”

Buoyed by Bones and trusting his talent, Thomas ripped off five birdies in the last 10 holes Sunday to tie the low round of the day, a 3-under 67, that gave him the clubhouse lead. But winning is hard, and winning is learned, and Thomas watched as rookie Mito Pereira – winless on the PGA Tour – played a series of nervy shots before collapsing on the 72nd hole. Given new life, Thomas’ killer instincts took over: He birdied the first two holes of the aggregate playoff to defeat Will Zalatoris, another winless up-and-comer, for his second career major. Order had been restored.

“He’s just won so much that he was pressing,” Mike Thomas said afterward. “He was definitely pressing some. Hopefully this will take some weight off and he can go on a nice run.”

When it was over, Thomas floated to the edge of the green and squatted to collect his thoughts. Even for the superstar so accustomed to winning, the achievement landed hard. Overwhelmed, he lost his balance and nearly toppled over, needing to steady himself with his right hand. He pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes while Mike massaged his shoulders. Then the father kneeled beside the son, their heads lowered. No words were exchanged, because nothing needed to be said, and when they both rose, their eyes were wet with tears. There was no greater feeling.

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