Justin Thomas: “My excitement level is high”

This is all you need to know about the close relationship enjoyed by Tiger and Charlie Woods and Justin and Mike Thomas. When the Thomases teamed together to win last year’s PNC Championship, they celebrated by donning their bright red Willie Park champions’ belts and strutting over to Tiger’s house to show them off. Laughter all around.

Justin Thomas, statements

“We would expect them to do the same thing,” Justin said.

The Thomases – Justin and his parents, Mike and Jani – are a tightknit bunch, so Justin and Mike appreciate being allowed inside Tiger’s inner circle. It’s fitting that they’ll be playing alongside Team Woods as Tiger returns to golf at 12:18 p.m. Saturday for the first round of the PNC Championship at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Orlando.

“My excitement level is high just for him being out here and being somewhere other than his house, and getting to see a lot of familiar faces,” Justin Thomas said. “And I know spending time with Charlie is a huge deal to him. I know he’s excited for that part.

“In terms of the competing, I think his expectations are very low. But at the same time, he is who he is for a reason, so I’m sure he’ll be (ticked) off if he didn’t play well.”

Mike Thomas, 62, is the son of a PGA club professional who went into the family business, working for years as the professional at Harmony Landing in Goshen, Kentucky. He and his son are defending champions at the PNC (Mike joked on Thursday he probably hasn’t defended a title of any kind in at least 20 years). Mike’s only child, Justin, is ranked sixth in the world, having seen the view from No. 1, a perch in the world pecking order that Woods occupied for 683 weeks of his meteoric career.

Justin Thomas is 28 and the owner of 14 PGA TOUR victories, including this year’s PLAYERS Championship and the 2017 PGA Championship. His career is off to a nice start. Tiger Woods is two weeks shy of turning 46. He already has climbed his mountains. He currently shares the record for most PGA TOUR victories (82, along with Sam Snead) and has won 15 major titles. He’s not sure when, or if, he will compete again on the PGA TOUR, stating he’ll never again be a full-time player. If he does choose to play, he expects his appearances to be very limited. This week’s PNC, where Charlie can hit drives from a forward tee about 1,000 yards ahead of Dad’s (Tiger will play at 7,106 yards) and Tiger can ride along in a cart, marks one small step in his journey.

The bond that the Thomases have built with Tiger and Charlie Woods represents an interesting mix of golf generations, a high-flowing conversation of information that lives within the game they all love. Tiger has mentored Justin, just as Justin now serves as a sounding board and mentor to 12-year-old Charlie. (“It’s probably less sage advice that he’s passing on,” Mike said, “and more of verbal comedic abuse, just because that’s what we do.”) Mike Thomas is in the picture frame, too, serving as a valuable set of eyes as he watches all three work on their golf swings.

Justin hasn’t played golf with Tiger since last December, but Mike recently played with Tiger and Charlie, and came away quite impressed with both.

“I mean, he’s still – he’s got some speed,” Mike said of Tiger. “He’s got some length. Hits a lot of really, really flush shots. I mean, I was surprised.”

The constant jabbing and sharp needling that goes on between the four golfers require all of them to have thick skin, and to stay sharp and quick on their feet. A year ago, Charlie walked to his ball inside a fairway bunker and found a funny note left from the Thomases: Draw hole. A few holes later, Charlie, who’d wisely kept the note, responded with the same.

All expect more of the same fun banter come Saturday.

“It’s going to be the same as if us four were just playing at home,” Justin said. “I mean, we’re all rooting for each other. We want to go out there and have fun. It’s the same thing for all of us, is that I’m here to spend time with my dad, and Tiger is here to spend time with Charlie, and vice versa. And it just so happens we’re playing in a televised tournament.

“That’s really — at least for me personally, that’s how I’m looking at it. I’m sure we’ll have our needling here and there. But at the end of the day, we’re all pulling for each other, and we just want to have a good time and see each other do well.”

Justin Thomas said Woods has been invaluable to his career, letting him inside the vault to one of the toughest competitors – mentally and physically – the game has seen. After they played for the first time in a TOUR event years ago, Thomas reached out to Woods and asked for an honest assessment. No surprise, that’s exactly what he received.

“Immediately, he’s like, ‘You don’t have near enough shots. … You can work it, but you don’t have enough shots to be, you know, as dominant as I was’ kind of thing,” Justin said. “He’s like, … ‘You have some (shots) that you can hit, but you don’t have all of them, and you don’t have enough.’ It’s like, all right.”

Thomas went to work to figure it out, and today says he has so many more different types of shots in his arsenal, something that allows him to shape shots and get after flags he might not have been able to access in the past.

“It’s helped,” he said.

Just as Justin is willing to answer anything that Charlie might pose to him, and how Mike is willing to help all three. On Saturday, finally, Tiger Woods will be back on the golf course once again. And rest assured, all four players in the group will be thankful for that.

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