Everyone knows the Masters.
People might nod their heads when you mention the U.S. Open or the PGA Championship or the Open Championship. But if you ask anybody to name a major golf tournament — whether they know anything about golf or not — they’ll almost always say, “the Masters.”
Augusta. The azaleas. The green jacket.
People just … know.
My parents took me to Augusta for the first time in 2003, when I was 11 years old. We made the eight-and-a-half hour drive down from Kentucky, and I could barely contain my excitement the whole way. I know a golf tournament isn’t the kind of thing most 11-year-olds would geek out about, but in my family, it was pretty much all golf, all the time. My grandfather is a golf pro, and my dad is the PGA Tour pro at our local golf course back in Louisville. I’ve been playing since I was four, and even four isn’t that early for a kid to start. How old was Tiger? Two, maybe? Heck, I probably lost a couple of key years there….
I don’t even think you need to be a fan of golf to understand the meaning of the Masters. But for me, as a young fan, driving our car through the gates at Augusta National was like driving through the gates of heaven.
When we got out of the car, we raced to the 2nd hole, picked a spot right behind the green and set up our chairs where we could see all the action. Then my dad and I walked around a little bit to kind of soak it all in before the first players teed off.
As we were walking, we noticed that people were slipping and sliding all over the place. A couple of people actually fell down on the wet grass. It had rained the night before, but that morning the sky was pretty clear and it was cool out. It felt like a pretty good day to watch some golf.
Then a voice came from out of nowhere. My dad and I looked around and realized that it was coming from the intercom.
The course was too wet.
The first round had been postponed.
I was like, “Aww, are you kidding me!”
My first time at the Masters, 11 years old, and it gets rained out.
I didn’t see one shot.
What a bummer.
Augusta, iconic as it is, wasn’t my first experience with a majors course. Like I said, I’ve been playing golf for most of my life. And for my sixth birthday, I really wanted to go play a par-3 course near our house. It was my favorite because it was the only course where I could hit the ball far enough to reach the green on just about every hole.
So on the morning of my sixth birthday, I woke up, got dressed, grabbed my clubs and got into the car with my parents. I was just … I don’t know … I was six years old and it was my birthday and I was going to the par 3 and I was probably going to be eating cake later. It was shaping up to be the perfect day.
Right when we pulled out of the driveway, my mom told me she had to stop real quick and pick something up at Valhalla Golf Club. I didn’t think much of it. Like I said, my dad was a golf pro, so it wasn’t unusual for us to have to run an errand and stop at a golf club for some reason or another.
Valhalla is a special place. As far as Kentucky is concerned, it’s the premiere golf course. It doesn’t have the history of Augusta — no course in America does — but it was designed by Jack Nicklaus. PGA championships have been played there. The Ryder Cup has been held there. It really is a golf destination. And as soon as I learned about it, I wanted to play there so bad.
But that’s not the way it works.
Little kids don’t get to just walk on and play on the best courses in the country.
But still, I didn’t mind stopping by on our way to the par 3.
So we got to Valhalla, and it was just beautiful. There’s no course in Kentucky like it. My dad got out of the car first and looked around, and when I got out right behind him, he looked around and said, “Ahhhh, man … wouldn’t it be nice if we could just play here today?”
Knowing it was basically impossible, I said, “Yeah … of course that would be cool.”
“Well,” my dad said, “what if we did it? What if we skipped the par 3 and just played here today?”
“Yeah, O.K., Dad.”
I wasn’t catching his drift.
“O.K. then,” he said. “We’ll play here today.”
“Wait … what?”
I couldn’t even grasp what he was saying. I didn’t catch on at all. Me, at six years old, playing Valhalla? I couldn’t even fathom it.
Finally he said, “Justin, get your clubs. We’re playing here today.”
And that’s how, on my sixth birthday, I got to play Valhalla with my dad.
I don’t remember how I played that day. I just know I didn’t hit as many greens as I would have on the par-3 course. My dad probably still has the scorecard somewhere — he always had a shoebox or two filled with scorecards when I was a kid, still does — but it doesn’t matter how I played.
Either way, it was a pretty good birthday.
Playing Valhalla with my dad at six years old was special. But 10 years later, in 2009, at 16 years old, I played in the Wyndham Championship — my first PGA Tour event.
And my dad was there, too.
He was my caddy.
Now, if I had to paint a picture of 16-year-old Justin Thomas for you, it would be … skinny. Scrawny. I might have been 110 pounds soaking wet. My biceps were as skinny as my wrists. I mean, I look back at pictures of myself sometimes and wonder if my parents even fed me.
Also, I was probably a little hot-headed.
I guess I’ve always been kind of … I don’t want to say emotional, but definitely fiery. I’ve been known to slam a few clubs in my day. I mean, that’s not something to be proud of, but being fiery and being aggressive is a part of my game. It’s a part of who I am. And I don’t think you should ever change who you are.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t find balance.
When I was younger, if I hit a bad shot, I’d start complaining about it — to my caddy, to myself, to anybody who would listen. I would hit a bad shot and then carry it with me for a few holes, or, in some cases, for the rest of the day. And the thing is — and this is true just about everywhere in life: If you step out onto the tee thinking, I’m probably gonna bogey this hole….
You’re probably gonna bogey it.
I did a lot of that when I was younger. I would beat up on myself after a bad shot or a rough hole.
But I didn’t really have that problem that day at the Wyndham Championship. I played great. I remember I was like two or three under after nine on the first day. Then I went in, ate lunch, came out on 10 and made something like a 30-foot putt for birdie. Through 10 holes, I had played bogey-free golf, and I was thinking, I can’t believe I’m doing this.
When I got to 18, I was five under, and I still hadn’t made a bogey all day.
The 18th hole was a tough par 4. I hit my drive left off the tee into the rough, and I had to chip out onto the fairway. So I was two strokes in — still bogey-free on the day, mind you — and I had 185 yards to the green. On top of that, I was facing a tucked pin.
And I went for it.
I squared up and ripped a 7-iron, and I knocked it within five feet. Then I sank the putt for par to finish with a five-under, bogey-free first round.
At 16 years old.
Looking back, I’ll never forget that tournament for two reasons:
First, I made the cut at a PGA Tour event at 16. Only a couple of golfers had accomplished that feat at a younger age. The more I thought about it, the more I was blown away at how special that was. It was kind of eye-opening. Motivating. It was the moment when I realized that not only did I want to play this game professionally and for the rest of my life, but also that I could.
And second … it was just a really special thing to share with my dad.
I’ve learned over the years to be more patient. These days, I don’t get as frustrated when I make a bogey. I’ve learned that over the course of 72 holes, you’re always going to have … those holes — the ones where nothing seems to go your way. Every now and then you’re going to have an easy up-and-down that you don’t execute, and the hole will go from an easy par to a bogey or a double.
But what are you gonna do, let it ruin your entire week?
I had a little bit of a wake-up call last year after the Players’ Championship. After my first two rounds, I was at even par. But somehow, I made bogey or worse on 11 holes and birdie or better on another 11. There was even a 19-hole stretch in which I made only one par.
And somehow, I came out even.
Consistently inconsistent, I guess you could say.
I played one round with Rory McIlroy that week, and after the tournament, I texted him. I told him, “Look, we’ve played together. You just played 18 holes with me. What do you see in my game that you think I should or could improve to take me to the next level?”
And basically, what he told me was: You don’t always need to be aggressive. There are definitely situations where you can be aggressive or you need to be, but you don’t need to be stupid aggressive all the time.
He was right.
I get like that sometimes.
I’ve done a lot of that — asking other guys on the Tour what they see in my game. And it has helped me out a lot. I asked Tiger after I played with him in the Bahamas. I’ve asked some of my closer golf buddies what they think. And I’ve always gotten useful advice. It’s been a slow growth process throughout my career, picking up little things along the way from my dad, from other golfers, from trial and error.
And it’s all coming together. Four of my eight wins have come since I got that advice from Rory. And right now, as I prepare for the 2018 Masters, I believe I’m playing the best golf of my life.
A lot of people talk about my relationships with Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler. Jordan and I go way back, and Rickie and I live next door to each other in Jupiter, Florida. We hang out constantly, and we play much of the same schedule, so we travel together a lot, too.
But I would be lying if I wasn’t a little envious watching Jordan and Rickie winning tournaments — which they absolutely deserved — month after month. Because for a lot of people, it was pretty much Jordan, then Rickie, then me, their buddy … who also plays on the PGA Tour.
That always stung a little.
But it’s been incredible to see those guys succeed. Whenever we’re playing in a tournament together and either Jordan or Rickie is on the 18th green trying to wrap up a win, I’m there to celebrate with them.
And now, when it’s me playing 18 and trying to lock in a win, Jordan and Rickie are there to celebrate with me.
No matter which side of that I’m on, it’s always pretty special.
2017 was an incredible year for me, but I feel like I’m playing even better this year. And I couldn’t be more excited for this week at Augusta. I’m just going to try and play my game, find that balance of aggression and emotion and passion … but also calm and patience and acceptance.
Just pray it doesn’t rain.