By Dan O’Neill
Jim Holtgrieve remembers it as a most-difficult conversation. As captain of the 2011 U.S. Walker Cup team, he telephoned Jani and Mike Thomas in Goshen, Ky., to explain why 18-year-old Jordan Spieth would be on his team and why their 18-year-old son would not.
Justin Thomas needed more time to grow up, to mesh an unbridled spirit with a dynamic talent.
“I had a long talk with (Thomas’) parents,” Holtgrieve recalled. “And I said, ‘He’s really got some talent, but he’s just too inexperienced right now. He’s not focused. There’s no doubt he’s got the talent, but he’s got to mature a little bit.’
“When you compared Justin to Jordan, gosh, Jordan was so mature and respectful. There wasn’t really anger in Jordan’s game, but there was anger in Justin’s game. I can tell now, when I see him and he hits a bad shot, I can tell he doesn’t like it. But before, he had a little bit of a temper, and it would affect his play.”
Two years later, the once-tempestuous Thomas starred on Holtgrieve’s 2013 Walker Cup winner at National Golf Links. And the captain had another conversation with the Thomases.
“I said, ‘Justin has changed; he has grown up,’ ” Holtgrieve said. “ ‘He’s more focused. He’s committed to trying to get to that level.’ ”
The level at which Thomas, 23, played in Hawaii earlier this month has been extraordinary. First, he held off the artist formerly known as the “hottest hand in golf” – Hideki Matsuyama – to capture the SBS Tournament of Champions.
Next, Thomas started the Sony Open with a 59, becoming the youngest golfer to go so low. From there, he flew wire to wire, landing with a PGA Tour scoring record of 27-under 253 and a seven-stroke victory, his third title of the 2016-17 season, including the CIMB Classic in Malaysia in October.
His pal Spieth played Hawaii in 35 under … and finished 14 strokes behind.
"It's a lot of fun to see,” Spieth said of Thomas, who returns to the Tour this week in the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Ariz., at No. 1 in the FedEx Cup points and No. 8 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “Certainly stuff that myself and a lot of our peers have seen going back almost 10 years now.”
For Holtgrieve, it’s not the driving length of Thomas (308.5-yard average this season), the fearlessness, the shot-making acumen. It’s the composure. At the SBS, he overcame a double bogey at No. 15 on Sunday, birdied the last two holes and stifled Matsuyama, who had won three consecutive starts worldwide. At Sony, Thomas handled the onus of a big lead and finished with a slam dunk.
“I can see it in his eyes and I can see it in his motions,” Holtgrieve said. “There’s no doubt. I knew he had the talent. I didn’t know he had the maturity, and I think that’s what is really taking it to the next level.”
Focus will remain a challenge this week at TPC Scottsdale, as will a big spotlight. Demands and distractions will hover.
“I think that’s where Jordan and he will be good friends, and that will really help him,” Holtgrieve said. “At the same time, his parents are really good. They will keep him grounded just like Jordan’s parents do.”
That said, Holtgrieve explained, any conversations about Thomas now should begin the same way: “The sky’s the limit.”
Dan O’Neill covers golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.