Justin Thomas’ father does it all, from teacher to buddy to — caddie?!
Over the past 30 years or so, there have been a few player fathers who became regulars at golf’s biggest events. Phil Mickelson Sr., periscope of his own invention in hand. Earl, of course. Sergio’s father, a club pro and teacher. Gerry McIlroy, a good amateur player with fast hands and a genial manner that could mask his intensity. Most recently, Mike Thomas, father of Justin. Mike is Justin’s teacher, buddy, father, buddy, sounding board, bill-payer, travel agent. Also his buddy.
And on Sunday, at Memorial, in a fill-in appearance, his caddie.
Justin’s first shot of the day, on the short par-4 first at Muirfield Village, was so bad that Justin hit a provisional. Not an ideal way to start the day, but attitude is everything, right?
“I wasn’t worried,” Mike said later. “He can always make a 3 on the second ball, and he has 17 holes after that.”
This is Mike’s parenting/teaching philosophy: Justin is hard enough on himself; be doesn’t need more of that from me.
If you see Justin on a golf course, his father is likely nearby, white-haired and fit, despite a herniated disk and bad hip. He has the rolled, forward-leaning shoulders that so many of the game’s lifers have. (Seve and his brothers come to mind.) Mike and Jani Thomas have one child, Justin, who is 27. On paper, Mike Thomas has him by 33 years. Well, Fred Couples is class of ’59, too. Neither man really seems 60, whatever that means.
On Sunday, for about four hours, Mike was wearing the white mesh, polyester, zipper-front caddie jacket that the Memorial requires. Mike first jumped the rope line on Saturday afternoon, when the heat, humidity and hills drove Justin’s regular man, the veteran caddie Jimmy Johnson, in. As a precaution, Johnson stayed on the bench on Sunday.
On Saturday, Justin was paired with Jimmy Walker. Two winners of the PGA Championship paired together, as it happens. On the back nine, Walker’s caddie called Mike Thomas over.
“Jimmy’s really struggling,” the caddie said.
Mike Thomas was confused. Jimmy Walker looked fine, and what could Mike Thomas do mid-round if Jimmy’s game was off? The name Jimmy Johnson did not immediately come to mind.
Jimmy Johnson is not one to reveal much anyhow. He’s quiet and stoical. He’s a Texan. He caddied for Nick Price and Steve Stricker for years, and played the South African tour half a lifetime ago. While playing in South Arica, Johnson developed a friendship with a man, Zack Rasego, from a small tribal village and they have remained close. Rasego is a veteran caddie who won the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews with Louis Oosthuizen. He is one of the few Black caddies on Tour today. (In the 1970s and ‘80s, there were scores of Black caddies.) Rasego and Johnson are partners on the road, often staying together and eating meals together. Professional golf used to have a lot of that. There’s less of that now.
Before long, Mike realized that Jimmy was Jimmy Johnson, not Jimmy Walker. Mike could then see that the caddie was struggling.
“I can’t make it,” Johnson said.
“Are you OK?” Mike Thomas asked.
“Yeah, just dehydrated,” Jimmy said.
Mike, about the only spectator the twosome had, put on the bib. On Sunday afternoon, he put it on again. Sunday was hotter yet. The caddie jackets get washed each night. They might make for a tidy appearance on TV, but the caddies can’t stand them.
Justin, with his trim-fitting Polo clothing and his playful, articulate interviews (and TV commentating at The Match II in May), seems like the quintessential modern American golf star. Smooth, corporate, appropriate, young, trim. Jimmy Johnson, on the other hand, is the tough and taciturn and you can see the years and the miles on his face. He’d be an unlikely person to see at a yoga class. It would seem like a case of opposites attracting. They’re more similar than you might think.
Mike Thomas says that his son, like Johnson, is an old-schooler at heart. A circa 1958 golfer wrapped in a 2020 package. Mike’s father, Paul Thomas, was a well-known club pro and player in Ohio who made the cut in the 1960 PGA Championship. Mike says there’s a lot of his father in his son.
“My dad was brutal on himself, and Justin was hard on himself, too,” Mike said. He was referring to Justin’s first two years on Tour, in 2014 and 2015. “So instead of me piling on, it was pretty easy for me to pull back with Justin and say, `Look, it’s not all that big of a deal. Let’s just move on.’”
Which gets us to the first tee on Sunday at Memorial and Justin’s wild drive. They found the first ball. It was in thick rough, under a tree. A dead twig was hitting Justin’s head. Justin is good on the rules. He removed the twig, when he determined it was not attached to the tree. He talked over the shot with his father just he talks over most shots with Johnson. He made a one-putt 5. He played the next 17 holes in one over. A 74 on Sunday was good enough to move him up the board. On Sunday night, Justin was heading to South Florida and Mike was heading to Kentucky. He was due to give a lesson Monday morning at 8:30. He’s a former head pro at Harmony Landing Country Club outside Louisville who is now a teaching pro there. Justin is his best-known student.
Father and son don’t stay together on the road and they don’t typically travel together. But if Justin is on a Tour range, Mike is often right behind him. You won’t see the father put his hands on Justin’s golf club, or on his shoulders getting the tilt just right. “I’m not that kind of teacher,” he says. Mike Thomas teaches by talking and listening. Where do you want to hit this? What did that swing feel like? Is the clubface open at impact? Little adjustments. It’s a game of tweaks, Mike Thomas will tell you.
He hasn’t caddied often for his son. He was asked if his father had ever caddied for him. Mike laughed.
“We wouldn’t have made it to the first fairway,” Mike said.
Oil and water?
“I would say it was oil and oil,” Mike said. “I was probably too much like him.”
When Justin was coming up in golf, Mike Thomas vowed to be gentle with him.
“As a club pro, I’ve seen things done poorly so many times,” Mike said. “It’s pretty easy for me to look at parents and I see their children’s reaction and feel that. I know what that kid is feeling. It’s not what these kid wants to hear. I’ll hear, `How could you do that?’ Well, it’s not like the kid was trying to do that. It’s not like he intentionally made a double bogey.”
On Sunday afternoon, at 5:15, the weather at Muirfield Village flipped. Patrick Reed and Justin Thomas were coming up the 18th fairway. Both had hit tee shots right of the fairway, but neither knew exactly where either ball was. Neither did their caddies. There were no spectators or anybody else on hand to help sort things out. Things were getting hairy.
The sky was getting darker, the air was getting cooler, the rain clouds above them were not practicing social distancing. And now there was a 20-knot wind in their faces. Before long, there was a clap of thunder, seemingly from a boom box on the nearby driving range.
Kessler Karain, Reed’s brother-in-law and caddie, helped straighten things out quickly enough. Reed’s ball was in the front part of a fairway bunker, Justin Thomas’s was about 20 yards ahead, in the same bunker. Mike Thomas jogged ahead, golf bag on his back and grabbed a rake.
Justin went from the fairway bunker to a greenside bunker. It seemed like the horn could signal at any moment, stopping play immediately. As the air cooled noticeably, heavy raindrops started to fall. Justin holed out, Reed holed out. Justin ran for cover, yelling behind him, “Good putt, nice playing with you.” His father was right behind him. Justin then saw a Tour official and asked some pointed questions about an earlier rain delay, when it was unclear whether the players could practice or not before play resumed. Mike watched and listened and said nothing.
“I’ve seen him in that kind of situation many times,” Mike said. “He will tell you what he believes. What I’ve always told him is, ‘Just make sure that you’re nice to the person.’ You’ve got to be nice to somebody when you’re trying to get your point across. You can attack an idea, but don’t attack the person. I’m a club pro. Members have attacked me for 40 year. I’ll say, ‘Look, I’m just doing what the board told me to do. Don’t attack me.’ When you make it personal, nobody wins. Also, someday you may need that guy in your corner.”
A lot of fatherly wisdom in that. Mike is more than Justin’s buddy.
Tiger and Justin play a lot of practice rounds together, including at the Memorial. Tiger has paired himself with Justin at his annual December tournament in the Bahamas. At the Presidents Cup, he made Justin his playing partner.
“Tiger has been great to Justin,” Mike said. “I told Tiger, ‘I really appreciate, how you’ve kind of taken him on.'”
They call each other princess, a shorthand for saying that each mocking the other as a prima donna, when each is anything but. (Both are from the grind-it-out school.)
When Justin saw Tiger holing out on the short par-4 18th, he called out to him, “Hey princess, just make sure you make your 5 there.”
Justin, in a locker room prank a few years ago, once affixed his signature to Tiger’s sandals. Tiger responded by loading Justin’s shoes with shaving cream. Justin has learned you’re not going to out-prank Tiger Woods. But that doesn’t stop him from trying. When you watch Justin playing a practice round with Tiger, as they often do at Augusta, the needles are out from start to finish, but you can see Justin watching and absorbing and learning all the while, Jimmy Johnson beside him, Mike Thomas nearby. It’s a strong team.
“When we started with Jimmy, there was a learning curve for Justin and for Jimmy,” Mike said. “We would chat. He had never worked with anybody of Justin’s power or aggression. Justin’s more than willing to try some crazy stuff. Jimmy was like `I’ve never caddied for people that did that.’ They have grown together. All three of us have. We’ve figured out what to say and when. Jimmy has been a home run for us.”
The next time Justin will be in the lineup will likely be at the Memphis tournament, the week after next. It will be a broiler there, too. Mike Thomas fully expects that Jimmy Johnson will be ready to go, and that Mike can assume his regular position, on the other side of the ropes.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@golf.com.