In August 2009, then 16-year-old Justin Thomas became the third-youngest player to make the cut at a Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Tour tournament. That meant he beat nearly 70 pro golfers, all older and more experienced.
Justin qualified for his first Tour event by winning the 2009 American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) FootJoy Invitational. Since he was still an amateur, Justin couldn’t keep the prize money. But the experience left him richer in another way.
“It really gave me a lot of confidence that I could play with those guys,” he says. “It’s a matter of who putts and who chips the best.”
Justin turned professional in 2013 and won his first professional event in 2014.
BL talked with Justin several years ago to get his tips on playing golf.
1. THE DRIVE. It’s cool to hit it far, but it’s better to hit it straight.
Start with your grip: Place all your fingers around the club with your thumbs staying on the top. Keep the club in your fingers, rather than in your palm, and grip lightly.
Then comes the stance: Place your feet shoulder-width apart, and line up the ball with the inside heel of your front foot. Swing back by turning your shoulders and hips away from the target, keeping your head still. Start the swing back to the ball by turning your hips toward the target as you swing through. Your hands should finish over your shoulder on the follow-through.
2. IRONS. Use a hybrid club instead of a 3-, 4- or 5-iron. Hybrids are much easier to hit. At your setup, place the ball halfway between the middle of your stance and the front foot. The shorter the club is (the higher its number), the farther back you want to place the ball. But don’t go farther back than halfway between your feet for full swings.
3. SHORT GAME. That’s chipping and putting. Practice it about 10 times more than you think you should. The stroke is similar for both. In putting, start with the ball just in front of mid-stance. Your backswing and follow-through should be equal distance. The longer the putt, the more backswing and follow-through.
4. BUNKERS. Stand with the ball near the front of your stance, lining it up with the inside heel of your front foot. A lot of people are afraid of hitting out of the sand. Just take a full swing, aim an inch behind the ball — this is one of the rare cases in golf where you do not hit the ball first — and follow through so the sand helps lift the ball out of the bunker.
5. PITCH. This is when you’re off the green about 40 to 100 yards and want to loft the ball high without too much roll. Stand with your feet closer than shoulder-width and so the ball is at the mid-stance. When you swing, think of a light karate chop down on the ball. Keep your hands ahead of the ball. Follow through with your arms, but not as far as a full swing with irons or woods. The ball should fly up, then almost stick on the green because of the backspin.
6. ROUTINE. Having a pre-shot routine is important. With tee shots, chips, irons, I:
1. Take two or three practice swings;
2. Get 10 feet behind the ball and face the target;
3. Visualize the shot I want to hit;
4. Set up to the ball and hit it.
On putts, after I read the green, I go 10 feet behind the ball facing the target and try to visualize the ball going in, take two practice swings next to it, then hit.
7. GENERAL THOUGHTS. Try not to think too much. The more things you think about, the worse you’re probably going to hit. Aim for the fairway. When I’m on the practice tee, I try to invent competition scenarios so I’m not just hitting as hard as I can. If there are flags or trees, I use them as targets. I say to myself: “This is the right side of the fairway. This is the left.” You practice how you play. Commit to the shot you want to hit. Don’t second-guess yourself.
8. ATTITUDE. Everyone struggles at some point with something. Earlier in high school, if I had a bad hole, I’d think negatively and it would keep getting worse and worse. You have to realize that the best players in the world have bad days. You want those bad days to be as good as possible. Sometimes the weather makes it hard to play. You can’t let the conditions get to your head. Understand that sometimes, par is a good score. Sometimes bogey is too. If you want to be the best, learn to accept those kinds of things. Be patient. Be confident. Practice as much as you can.