A Golfing Dad's Life
by Cameron Morfit / Images: Courtesy of Getty Images
Mike Thomas travels with knitting needles and stretchy string. Before every round that his son Justin plays on the PGA TOUR, Mike Thomas, a 60 year-old PGA teaching professional at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Kentucky, stakes out the practice green. He eyes the various hole locations, finds a place to stick two strung needles in the ground (an alignment drill) and waits.
Rory McIlroy at the 18th tee during the final
round of The Players Championship 2019
When Justin Thomas comes out onto a course, he finds his father and sets up at a couple of knitting needles joined by string and prepares to stroke putts. Sometimes they chat, sometimes they don’t, and then Justin and his caddie Jimmy Johnson head to the tee.
This will happen each tournament day until it’s over, whereupon they will both pack up and head to the next town, or go back to their respective homes – Jupiter, Florida, for Justin, and Goshen, just outside Louisville, for dad/coach/occasional caddie, Mike (he and his wife Jani recently got a place in South Florida, as well). He’s not just the father of a world-class golfer, he’s also the son of one – Paul Thomas, a lifelong teaching pro in Ohio who made the cut at the 1960 PGA Championship and played on the PGA TOUR Champions.
As we inch toward the conclusion of the 2019-20 PGA Tour Season where Justin, already a three-time winner this season, entered the FedExCup Playoffs as the Number 1 ranked golfer, Mike seems to be living the dad dream. What’s it really like? Cameron Morfit caught up with him three days in a row as he set up those knitting needles to find out about his thoughts on being Justin’s dad.
Everybody was telling us what he was going to accomplish. ‘He’s going to play the Tour.’ I’m like, ‘How do you know that? He may quit playing next year.’ I mean, he was accomplished at every level he went to, but some of the best junior golfers in the country and even the world have struggled on the Tour. So there was no guarantee.
Justin had an incredible drive. He was on the course eight to 10 hours a day. One time, he was probably 11 or something. I said, ‘Justin, why don’t you stay home tomorrow and just play some basketball in the backyard with some of your buddies or go play some video games? Just be an 11 year-old, take a day off.’ He replied, ‘I might do that, I’m kind of tired, my hand is hurting.’ At about 9:30 the next morning I was out there teaching and I saw him hitting balls. I got done with my lesson and I said, ‘I guess that didn’t work out very well then.’ He told me that he was bored. He was driven to do better than he did the day before. It’s not that it came easily to him, but he just didn’t have a complex motion that could get out of whack really badly. My swing is the opposite. I’m inside out and flip it over. I never knew what was going to happen any day. Now, I’m a lot better swing-wise, but I don’t score as well because of all the short game stuff and the distance that I’ve lost just from inactivity.
With Justin I tried to keep it fun. It would be seven at night, and we’d play three holes and we would gamble. He was 8 years old and we’d play for a dollar, and I gave him s--- and he gave me s---. But he liked it. My dad did not keep it fun. He made it pretty difficult, which he admits to now. I told myself that I was never going to do that to Justin. I didn’t care whether he played golf or not; I just made an oath to myself that I was going to be his friend, not his father. So we goofed around, played cards, razzed and ribbed each other. If I had to be a parent about something, I would, but I made sure that we were buddies first.
My dad and I were both hard on each other. I mean, he was hard on himself, and I was hard on myself when I was playing competitively. So I spent a lot of time making sure that Justin wasn’t. I think better players by nature are hard on themselves; that’s how they get where they are. But there’s a fine line; take some credit for some good things that you did.
I teach probably 40 kids at Harmony. I’ll leave here Sunday night and go to Florida for a day because my wife is there. Tuesday morning I’ll go home to Kentucky, and then I’ll be teaching every day all day long, even in February when it’s still cold. These kids don’t care.
I’ve been there 31 years, 27 years maybe as Head Pro. I’m Emeritus now because about four years ago in Phoenix, I was travelling to maybe eight events a year, and I said to Justin, ‘Am I out here too much? Not enough? Just right?’ He goes, ‘I’d like you out here a lot more.’ I’m like, ooh, a lot more. So I went back to the club and said, ‘Justin comes first,’ and the club has been extremely supportive. I love to work. I’m the first one there and the last to leave.
I still pay all of Justin’s bills, handle some of his correspondence, and a lot of his charity work. We run a huge AJGA event at our club, the Justin Thomas Junior Championship, which is really a year‑long process getting sponsors and everything. I played two rounds of golf last year. When the PGA Tour wanted to do a piece on us a couple years ago and asked if I had any footage, I told them that I was using video long before other people. I saw someone doing it and decided that I wanted to do it, so I had all these fancy cameras at a very early stage of video and teaching.
Whenever we went out to play, I’d video it, even when he was 3 years old.
As a kid Justin swung in and down on it quite a bit. He doesn’t do that any more. His lines always went off when he was little, and we still keep an eye on that today – today on the range we’re going to be looking at his lines.
He played basketball in the summer and soccer in the winter until he was 7 or 8. One of the biggest fights I got into with my wife was when Justin was playing in a sixth-grade basketball game, and we would stay on for the seventh- and eighth-grade games. I said to my wife, ‘This is Justin’s last year; he’s never going to be able to do what those guys do.’ Those seventh and eighth graders had already been to 20 basketball camps and Justin had been to none. Jani replied, ‘He’s going to be better a year from now,’ to which I said, ‘Jani, he sucks.’ She then said, ‘I can’t believe you would say that about your own son!’ My response was, ‘I love him, but compared to these guys he’s got no chance.’
Justin laughs about this. I think seventh grade is when you try out and they put your name on the door and you go over at 9 o’clock at night for the final cut. I remember thinking, man, he’s got no shot. I didn’t want to discourage him and say that he couldn’t do it, but I knew what was coming. So we went back and his name wasn’t on that door. I said, ‘OK, let’s go, you’re done.’ But I told myself that nobody out on that court was going to hit a 3-wood to a tucked pin over water like him. He was tiny until he was a junior, and if you’ve ever seen any of his pictures when he won the FootJoy invitational in Greensboro at 15, he was hitting hybrids and woods into greens.
I’m at 90 to 95 percent of his events. It’s a fabulous life for one reason. You get to watch your child do something they have a passion for. It’s like if you go and watch your son do surgery all the time, or win legal cases, the joy of any parent or father is seeing that your child, whether it’s a girl or boy, has a passion for something.
I mostly fly commercial. If I’m in the right place where he’s going to hop to the next event, I’ll go with him.
Being out here has afforded me some things that I would never get to do if I wasn’t Justin Thomas’s father. At the (Sony Open in Hawaii), we were on the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, which just came into port for six months. The Admiral took us out there after we played in the pro-am. Two years before that, he took us on a nuclear submarine, and we have become friends with him since then. If Justin plays well, I’ll hear from him. I meet a lot of celebrities and actors, which, I couldn’t care less about, but when I met this Admiral, I was impressed with the stories that he had to tell and the places that he had been to serve our country.
I’ll be out here as long as Justin needs me. It’s tiring and I can’t see myself doing this when I’m 75. I’m 60 now and it still recharges me to get busy teaching when I’m home because I haven’t seen the kids for a while and I’ve missed them.
Then after a couple of weeks at home, it excites me to get back on a plane and out on tour, so it all works out well at the end of the day.
Justin Thomas and Mike Thomas
Justin Thomas and Mike Thomas