KUALA LUMPUR: Even though his stint atop the Official World Golf Ranking lasted only a month, Justin Thomas has proven himself to be truly a worthy No. 1 in every sense of the way.
At 25, Thomas is the reigning FedExCup champion, an eight-time PGA TOUR winner, holder of one major title and counting, he’s shot the magical 59 once plus he is a firm fan favourite – in May, he helped make a fan’s wedding proposal become a Twitter sensation and headline news on CNN world sports.
Sporting and entertainment celebrities including Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, Tiger Woods, Kid Rock, Tom Brady and Justin Timberland are amongst some of Thomas’ buddies, he hangs out with Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Smylie Kaufman during their now-famous spring breaks and he has also played golf with American President Donald Trump.
Despite his rise to fame and accumulation of wealth – Thomas has earned over US$22 million in prize winnings in a little over three years – he has kept both his feet firmly on the ground, which ironically is in sharp contrast to his dynamic golf swing which sees him almost tip-toeing on his right foot at the point of impact. The power he generates propels the ball to incredible distances for a guy who stands at merely 1.77 meters and is a lightweight 65kg.
The son of a PGA teaching professional, Thomas became the fourth youngest world No. 1 after Woods, Rory McIlroy and Spieth in mid-May, thanks to an 11th place finish at THE PLAYERS Championship, the PGA TOUR’s flagship tournament.
Such was the thrill of seeing his name above everyone else that he stayed up late into the evening, waiting eagerly for the world ranking’s official website to refresh. “I saw it and it was pretty cool. Seeing every other golfer in the world behind my name was a pretty fun thing,” said Thomas, who screenshot the page for safekeeping.
“It means a lot, but it's something I want to have for a long time, it's not something I just want to have once. To have it for a week and then be done with – like D.J. (Dustin Johnson) has and like Tiger did and other guys who have had it for a long time, that's more of a goal of mine as opposed to just having it. I would much rather play well for another eight to 10 years and see how long I can have it."
Power-hitter Johnson swiftly regained his top ranking with an 18th PGA TOUR victory at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in June but it is certain that Thomas will be fired up to challenge for the mantle throughout the remainder of the 2017-18 season and beyond.
Asian golf fans, in particular those in Malaysia, have been fortunate to witness Thomas announce his arrival on the big stage. He claimed his breakthrough PGA TOUR title at the CIMB Classic at TPC Kuala Lumpur in 2015 and returned 12 months later to repeat successfully as champion.
His second title in Malaysia also provided the launch pad to a stunning 2016-17 PGA TOUR campaign which saw him winning four other tournaments including a first major at the PGA Championship and culminating with the season-long and prestigious FedExCup crown and the Player of the Year award. “To win two in a row (in Malaysia) ranks right up there with my accomplishments,” said Thomas last year.
From initially displaying raw talent and tenacity – he’d bounced back from a double bogey with three straight birdies on the back nine to win by one from Adam Scott in Malaysia in 2015 – to soaking up advice from golf great Jack Nicklaus who told him it pays to play conservatively when he does not have his ‘A’ game on given weeks, Thomas has become a near complete golfer in his drive to become the best on the planet.
His triumph at the inaugural CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES in South Korea last October was another huge rubberstamp to his growing credentials and showed his lightweight frame is reinforced with an abundance of steel and character. Battling fatigue following a long season, he dug deep into his reserves, ran on gas fumes and produce just enough of magic to pip Marc Leishman in a playoff.
Thomas’ scorecard this season’s makes impressive reading too with a victory at the Honda Classic in February, four top-10s, four other top-20s and not a single missed cut from 13 starts at the time of writing. He is also intent on chasing a small slice of history as no FedExCup champion has repeated, not even Woods during his dominant years. “It's something I would like to do,” Thomas said.
Woods, a 14-time major winner, had spent a record 683 weeks atop the world ranking before being dethroned in 2014, with Johnson's reign lasting 64 weeks. As it turned out, Thomas’ first reign was short-lived but the world ranking is so bunched up right now that it can change quickly. Thomas’ father, Mike, certainly believes his son has the fire in the belly to stay in the dogfight.
Mike told the Sports Illustrated in June his son was always determined to win even as a child. "He wasn't afraid to succeed. A lot of people are. They like it back in fourth or fifth place. It's comfortable. Justin, he was pissed when he was second. That's stuff you just can't teach," he said.
Ultimately, it is certain that Thomas is destined to become one of the greats in the game. Despite his celebrity status, he remains as the guy next door – humble, approachable, helpful and respectful. Otherwise, why would he even respond to a fan’s request via Instagram to help in a marriage proposal? “It all worked out great,” said Thomas, who helped Sean Powell pop the question to Andrea Cota in an elaborate scheme during the Wells Fargo Championship.
Whether Thomas becomes Cota’s best man at the wedding set for next summer, he has surely proven he is No. 1 no matter which way you look at him.
*Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, communications of the PGA TOUR, and is based in TPC Kuala Lumpur
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