Kenny Lofton had played point guard in the Final Four and made six All-Star teams when he took on Michael Jordan. It was the first week of May 2008. Lofton, Jordan and a half-dozen other friends were in Louisville for a bit of gambling and golf before attending the Kentucky Derby. But of course, a bit of gambling and golf is never enough for Jordan.
With seven holes left MJ started a new skins game. He gestured toward the kid who had been caddying for him—"this little dude," Lofton recalls. "He's, like, 100 pounds soaking wet."
Jordan said, "I got Little Man. We'll take whoever wants us."
Sides were taken and bets were made. Jordan promised to cover Little Man's losses. Lofton thought, Man, we're going to take all of Michael's money, finally. Then he watched Little Man walk toward the back tees. Jordan's opponents told the kid it was O.K.: "You don't have to hit from back there." Little Man waved them off and crushed his first drive.
Jordan may have known what Lofton didn't: Little Man's name was Justin Thomas, and he was one of the best young golfers in the country. But Thomas knew what Jordan couldn't: Playing seven holes with Jordan's money on the line, and His Airness watching every shot, was fun. Days after turning 15, Thomas birdied four of the seven holes. Lofton says, "I ended up losing 300 or 400 dollars. And Michael wasn't doing jack."
Thomas has spent the ensuing decade shrinking the bridge from adolescence to adulthood. His parents opened a 529 college savings plan when he was at St. Xavier High in Louisville, made one deposit and realized they would never need it. He got a full ride to Alabama, won the Fred Haskins Award as national player of the year as a freshman, led the Crimson Tide to a national championship as a sophomore and then turned pro.
Thomas shot a 59 on the PGA Tour (at Waialae Country Club) at 23. He earned his first major title, last year's PGA, at 24. He also won the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour and PGA of America Player of the Year awards, and took home $9.9 million in 2017. In total, he already has eight wins on Tour. Right now he is sitting in a golf cart at The Bear's Club in Jupiter, Fla., driving toward his first practice session since rising to No. 1 in the World Ranking. He stops at the practice putting green to say hello to somebody.
"What's up, M?" Thomas says.
He hugs Michael Jordan, who is standing on the green with his usual three appendages: a golf club, a cigar and Ahmad Rashad. Thomas chats with Jordan for a few minutes, then slips back into the cart. He drives to an outbuilding where The Bear's Club stores bags for each member who's a touring pro. Thomas lifts his personalized bag out of its cubby ("For a while, I was next to Nicklaus," he says) and drives up to the practice area.
Thomas pulls out a wedge and starts hitting cut shots into the right-to-left wind. He has not held a club in three days and is surprised at how well he is hitting it: "Usually your touches or feels are off. You look up and that ball is not exactly in that same window you're used to."
Golf is largely a game of mental discipline. Patience: Early in his career, Thomas would go for almost every pin, even when his game wasn't quite right, and it cost him. Focus: In March, at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Thomas would have become No. 1 in the world if he beat Bubba Watson, and he let it affect his play. ("That was terrible. I was so mad. I still am.") Nerves: Even the best golfers succumb to them occasionally. Rory McIlroy admitted he "unraveled" in the final round of the 2011 Masters. Jordan Spieth said that "I didn't take that extra deep breath" before his devastating quadruple bogey on number 12 at the 2016 Masters. Tiger Woods—even Tiger Woods—has battled 1st-tee jitters.
And you, Justin? Have you ever played poorly because you were nervous?
He looks down and thinks hard for 13 seconds before saying, almost apologetically, "Nothing really stands out." Thomas will go on a 30-second rant after a bad shot, but he never mutters anything to himself to help him hit a good one. He never breathes deeply to settle himself. He cannot remember a single shot he mishit because he was nervous.
Golf fans generally know two facts about Justin Thomas's childhood in Goshen, Ky. One is that he is a country-club kid. The other is that his dad, PGA of America teaching professional Mike Thomas, taught him the game. Combine them, and you have the backstory equivalent of a pushed drive: It sounds solid but ends up way off.
Thomas grew up in a country club in the way that a pastor's child grows up in a church. His parents were not members at Harmony Landing. Mike worked 90-hour weeks as the teaching pro. Members consoled Mike and his wife, Jani, after she had a miscarriage and hosted Jani's baby shower when she became pregnant again, with Justin. Jani would set him down in his carrier on the pro shop floor while she worked the counter, checking people in or doing payroll by hand. One group of women who had a regular nine-hole game would argue about who got to give baby Justin a bottle.
Harmony Landing is not a stuffy club. There are no tee times. For years there were no ball-washers. The club does not much care if you go out in a sixsome. (This is why Jordan liked it.) There are no caddies. (This is why Mike asked Justin to caddie for MJ—nobody had dibs on the assignment.)
Mike is the only teacher that Justin ever had, but saying he built young Justin's swing is a bit like giving a piano tuner credit for Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Mike was the son of a teaching pro himself, and while he always loved the game, he did not always enjoy it. Mike's dad, Paul, was hard on himself, and so was Mike. At times he would stand over shots in tournaments with the worst possible swing thought: I suck.
At ages three and four, Justin held the club cross-handed. Mike didn't correct him; eventually Justin corrected himself. Once in a while Mike and Justin would mix things up by throwing the ball from the tee instead of hitting it. Anything to keep it fun.
Mike gave Justin bits of advice, but he was wary of over-instructing. Then one day when Justin was six or seven, he walked into Mike's office and said, "Watch this. I can hit fades and draws." Mike was stunned. They walked to the range, and Justin did it. Mike asked, "How did you learn to do that?" Justin said, "I just figured it out.'"
Mike started to see that Justin had more natural talent than he ever had, but Justin also had something just as vital: "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."
Justin was always small for his age, but he compensated with a wide backswing, a polished short game and a creative mind. At 8, he won a 12-and-under junior PGA event. Pretty soon he was traveling to as many tournaments as his parents could afford. Mike joked that they had only one child because "the good Lord said, 'You only get one, because this is going to be an expensive one.'"
When Justin was 9, he announced that he was ready for the next step in his golf life.
"Dad," he said, "I really want to get a coach."
Mike was not quite sure how to explain this to him, but he tried: "You've got one. That's me."
Justin said, "No, I want a real coach."
Mike tried again: "I'm a real coach."
Maybe Justin was confused because Mike did so little actual coaching. When Justin wanted Mike to look at his swing, he did; when Justin had a question, Mike answered, then would go back to work. Finally, late in Justin's high school career, he asked the simplest question: "Dad, can we have a lesson?" They had never had a full-on, 45-minute session at the range.
Members would say, "He's going to play on Tour!" And Mike would calmly reply, "He may not play golf in a year." That was O.K. with the Thomases. Mike and Jani had no grand plan, which is how their son became the rarest of American sporting creatures: a well-adjusted phenom.
Justin would drub his opponents by day and ask them to join his family for dinner that night. He skipped school to compete in tournaments but didn't brag about winning them. His buddies at St. Xavier knew he played a lot of golf, but they didn't think much about it because he so rarely discussed it. Shortly after his junior year, Thomas told them he had to leave town. "I'm playing in an event." Well, he said that a lot. They did not realize it was a PGA Tour event until they saw him on TV.
In his first round at the 2009 Wyndham Championship, when he was 16, Thomas shot a 65; he became the third-youngest player in Tour history to make the cut ... and still, his friends did not know the full story. One buddy, Redmon Lair, says, "We really truly didn't know how good he was until it punched us in the face when he went pro."
At the Bear's Club, Thomas holds his Titleist driver, built exactly to his specifications, whatever those are. Thomas doesn't know even what kind of shafts he has in his irons. Asked how much the shafts weigh, he looks at the driver and says, "This one is 60. It says it." (It does say 60, but it is actually 68 grams.) Thomas may be the PGA Tour's best golfer, but he would be its worst equipment rep.
"It drives Tiger absolutely insane that I don't know anything about my clubs," he says. "I'm like, 'Look, dude: I don't care. I get fitted and Titleist says these are the best numbers, and they fly the best, and I use them and I play well with them. So what's the big deal?'"
Thomas cannot imagine hitting a bad shot and wondering if his shaft-weight is off. When he struggles, he naturally gravitates toward the simplest possible solution. When he was hitting too many drives off the toe of the club, he colored in some of the alignment lines on his driver with a Sharpie, at the suggestion of a Titleist rep. It suited his eye better. Problem solved. When he hits too many errant shots, he switches divot tools. When he misses too many putts, he switches ball markers. (Asked if it's really the ball marker's job to make putts, he laughs and says, "Yeah, it is!")
The foundation of his swing is his belief in it. When he has a lead, he does not fret about protecting it; he tries to increase it. Thomas says, "You are better off being really confident in the wrong club than being tentative with the right club." On the 71st hole of the PGA at Quail Hollow, with a lake between him and the green and a two-stroke lead, Thomas told caddie Jimmy Johnson, "I know the yardage says 6-iron, but I'm pumped up." He hit a 7-iron to within 15 feet and made birdie. Thomas is an uncommonly long hitter, especially for somebody who weighs 160 pounds. Since turning pro, he has refined his wedge play and (thanks to a tip from Nicklaus) learned to play it safer on his days when he is not hitting it great, turning 76s into 72s and keeping him in contention.
At a recent practice session in Kentucky, Mike worked with a double-digit handicapper while Justin hit balls on the other end of the range. Mike's brilliance is that he is essentially the same teacher for both of them. With amateurs, he says, "I might see four or five things I don't like. I'm going to give you the one you need the most." Mike writes the rest down on a card that he keeps in his office, to be addressed after the first problem is solved.
Mike says he has lost students who are engineers or accountants by day because "their whole life is detail. When I'm not giving them enough detail, they're not happy." But his approach has been perfect for his son. Young Justin developed a habit of pulling his right heel off the ground at the beginning of his downswing. Mike just told him, "That doesn't bother me. You're hitting it great.'"
Mike does not believe in a model swing; indeed, his core belief is that there is no model swing. Justin has thrived partly because he was not taught to chase perfection. He just tries to hit the ball where he wants it to go. He has never undergone a full swing change.
"There's things in my swing that get bad that we try to change, but we can't just remorph everything and start from scratch," Justin says, as he hits another short iron. "Want to grab some food? The food here is so good."
Over lunch Thomas says he wants to try deep-sea diving and spearfishing, but then admits he only says he wants to try deep-sea diving and spearfishing: "Then I think, I have to go get my diving license, I think I'll stay inside today." He adds bluntly, "I don't have a hobby."
In truth, he spends a lot of his free time GOAT-herding: golf rounds or boat trips with Jordan, practice rounds at Augusta with Tom Brady, frequent rounds at Medalist Golf Club with Woods. Press him about his celebrity friends, and he will rattle them off: Steph Curry, Andre Iguodala, Kid Rock, Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler, several Pittsburgh Penguins. Justin Timberlake recently saw Thomas during a concert and pretended to putt on stage.
In December, Thomas played Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach with his dad and President Trump. (Thomas says, "It doesn't matter my political views, who I like or dislike: If a president ever asks me to do anything, I'm going to say yes.") And in the final minute of a recent NBA playoff game, with the Cavaliers clinging to a three-point lead, Cleveland guard J.R. Smith spotted Thomas courtside and made the motion of a golf swing. Smith was on the court at the time.
Thomas connects with celebrities but doesn't act like one. Thomas had lived in his house for months when somebody asked where the microwave was. His response: "I assume it's in the kitchen." He had never looked for it. This was when he learned he had no microwave. His explanation: "I finish what I eat. I'm not a leftover guy. I mean business when I eat dinner."
He has two roommates, fellow pros (and former Alabama golfers) Bud Cauley and Tom Lovelady. (Thomas's girlfriend, Jillian Wisniewski, lives in Chicago.) He now has a microwave—his cousin Taylor Britton bought him one for Christmas—and he also has a minifridge stocked with Coors Light, his favorite beer.
He is not a competition junkie like Jordan. He is not motivated by slights, real or perceived, like Jordan and Brady. He did not have a father selling the world his destiny like Tiger. He has no recollection of the first time he beat his father on the course, which baffles him: "That's what everybody remembers, the first time they beat their dad." He probably forgot because it meant so little to him.
One of the first things Mike Thomas did when his son hit it big was downgrade his office. He now works in a windowless room filled with Foot-Joys and golf balls. He still gives lessons for $65 to $80 for nonmembers—comically low prices for the coach of the No. 1 player in the world. He and Jani live in the same house where Justin grew up. Jani still does part-time work for a health-insurance sales agent. These are not people who are looking to change their lives.
Justin made that bridge between adolescence and adulthood so small that sometimes he forgets which side of it he is on. When he travels to majors, he rents a house for his high school buddies. When he goes to dinner with his parents in Kentucky, he finds himself waiting for them to pick up the check. He is forever their kid.
Over Mother's Day weekend, Thomas saw a picture of himself beginning his downswing. His right heel was up in the air. He never did fix that. He winced when he saw the photo: "What the hell am I doing? It's just terrible looking." But that weekend he moved up to No. 1 in the world, proof of what a boy can do when his parents give him the freedom to let his feet leave the ground.