Charles Howell III walked off the course after his final round of the Frys.com Open feeling older. His playing partner that day in the PGA Tour’s season-opening event was 6-foot-2 Patrick Rodgers, 23, who averaged 316 yards off the tee and finished T-6. “When I came out on tour in 2000,” said Howell, 36, “players like [Rodgers] were playing Division II basketball.”
Finishing a career-best T-3 that week was Justin Thomas, Rodgers’ former housemate in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Thomas, 22, was paired with Stephen Curry in the pro-am. The NBA’s reigning MVP could see the athleticism in Justin Thomas. At 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, Thomas routinely launches drives more than 300 yards. “I’ve seen it on TV,” Curry told me. “To see it in person is pretty special.”
Thomas flew the red-eye that Sunday out of Sacramento back to West Palm Beach, where he reflected on his ninth top-10 finish in 38 PGA Tour starts since 2014. He shot a fourth-round 69, the same score posted by the tournament winner, Emiliano Grillo. Thomas knew it would be noted that Grillo, 23, a fellow member of the fabled high school Class of 2011, was playing in his first event as a member of the PGA Tour. Would it make for yet another “young guns” comparison in which Thomas—who is close to Jordan Spieth and lost last season’s rookie of the year to Daniel Berger (both members of that 2011 class)—would come out on the short end.
If so, Thomas wasn’t going to let it get to him. He was using Rickie Fowler, not Spieth, as his role model. “If I can get myself there a bunch, it will happen,” Thomas said. “Look at Rickie. It took him a long time without winning.”
Fowler won in his 64th tour event in a playoff, at the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship. Like Fowler, Thomas was a first-team college All-American as a freshman. However, he didn’t take as much heat as the heavily hyped Fowler, even though Justin’s final-round scoring average of 70.52 as a rookie ranked 79th on tour—and his stroke average for his first three rounds in 2014-’15 were all in the top 11.
In 2015, Thomas has shot two 61s—including the second round at the CIMB Classic last week in Malaysia. But he has also shot two 75s in fourth rounds while in contention that dropped him far down the leader board.
During Thomas’ week off practicing at the Bear’s Club, Smylie Kaufman, 23 —another friend and rival from their amateur days—won the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in his second start as a rookie. “Seeing [Kaufman and Grillo] win was a little bit motivating,” Thomas said. “I went home last week and got to work to join them.”
Thomas is the son of Mike Thomas, the head professional at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Ky. A ball rack hangs in the clubhouse containing 126 golf balls signifying Justin’s victories going back to his first junior tournament. The last one added was Thomas’ win at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship during the Web.com Tour Finals in 2014.
“The count has slowed down since junior golf,” Mike Thomas said before his son won the CIMB in his 39th tour start on Sunday. “So that will be a special one for sure.”
It definitely is.
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Golf World.