[PHOTO: Ross Kinnaird]

When Justin Thomas was 7 years old, he had a chance to meet Jack Nicklaus at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky. Thomas doesn’t quite remember the circumstances of that meeting, but the kid from Louisville, whose father Mike was a long-time PGA professional at Harmony Landing Country Club in nearby Goshen, was rather giddy about getting Nicklaus’ autograph.

“I got to meet him, and I got his autograph, and I was so proud that I got his autograph,” Thomas said in an interview in 2020. “I remember going into school the next day and telling everyone I met the best golfer in the world, and everyone thought it was Tiger. I said, ‘No, it’s Jack Nicklaus.’ I might have been 7, but me being the golf nerd that I am, I knew what I was talking about.”

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A few days after that encounter, Tiger Woods, the heir apparent to the Golden Bear, defeated Bob May in a playoff at Valhalla for the third leg of his heralded Tiger Slam. Thomas remembers that, too.

In recent years, as he has become close friends with Woods, Thomas has talked with the 15-time major winner “plenty” about Valhalla. Woods teases by saying Thomas was probably in nappies at the time of his 2000 victory. Thomas usually responds with some spice. “I always remind him he was one lip-out away from losing to Bob May in the PGA and not having the Tiger Slam.”

When the PGA Championship returns to Valhalla this week for the first time since 2014, Thomas hopes to emulate his mate and leave town with the Wanamaker Trophy. In the process, he also would avoid the fate that befell Nicklaus in the championship six decades earlier.

It’s not unusual for a player to compete in a PGA Tour event or even in a major championship in his hometown, but it’s rare for a player of renown (in this case, a multiple-major winner) to return to his place of birth for a major when that city does not otherwise host a tournament. It happened to Nicklaus in 1964 when the Ohioan was defending his PGA title at Columbus Country Club. Despite a record-tying 64 in the final round, Nicklaus couldn’t catch Bobby Nichols – who, by chance, happens to be from Louisville – and finished tied for second with Arnold Palmer.

Competing last week at the Wells Fargo Championship, a signature event at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, Thomas is trying to not look ahead to the 106th PGA Championship. Good luck with that. Quail Hollow was the site of his first PGA title in 2017. So, reminders abound. And by not winning the $US20 million limited-field event, Thomas is arriving at Valhalla a full two years removed from the most recent of his 15 tour titles, the 2022 PGA that he won in a playoff at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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Jack Nicklaus and Justin Thomas, shown at the 2024 Players Championship, first met when Thomas was only 7 years old. [Photo: Ben Jared]
If Thomas, 31, were feeling any extra pressure about the prospect of playing in front of a hometown crowd, he wasn’t letting on during a pre-tournament press conference last Wednesday at Quail Hollow. He certainly expects plenty of support from the hometown denizens. His father, via text, said the whole family was looking forward to the week. “We just need 2-300 more tickets,” he wrote.

Understandable. Thomas, a former high school state champion, is easily the most accomplished golfer from the state best known for its horse racing. He is one of only two men from the Commonwealth of Kentucky to win a major championship, joining Nichols. Kenny Perry could have joined them had he beaten Mark Brooks in a sudden-death playoff in the 1996 PGA at Valhalla. (Gay Brewer, who won the 1967 Masters, was a three-time Kentucky high school champion, but he was born in Ohio.)

The PGA Championship will have a hard time surpassing the by-a-nose spectacle of Saturday’s 150th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs won by Mystik Dan, but a Thomas resurgence ought to bring Louisville to its feet again, only with caps instead of fancy hats.

“I can’t even relate to what it would be like. I’m sure it will be quite a challenge for me next week to kind of deal with it all,” Thomas, who hosts an annual AJGA event at Harmony Landings, said last Wednesday. “That’s why I’m trying to not look forward at all. I have a huge event ahead of me here this week that I’m trying to play well and try to contend and get a chance to win. Once this week’s done, then can focus on next week, and hopefully I can let you know Sunday afternoon next week.”

Ranked 29th in the world, Thomas is coming off a T-5 finish at the RBC Heritage, another signature event that followed on the heels of the Masters, where Thomas missed the cut with a grisly finish in which he played his final four holes in seven-over-par. He began the year with consecutive top-six finishes, and his late surge at Harbour Town, where he closed with a six-under 65, has him buoyed for what’s ahead.

“I’m playing plenty well enough to win tournaments; it’s just about putting it together and doing it at this point,” he said.

The question is whether or not he is close to the level he exhibited at Southern Hills, where he passed Mito Pereira then beat Will Zalatoris in a three-hole playoff. “The quality of my golf and my game feels more complete than it did then, I would say. It’s just about getting in the right head space and executing when you need to, just plotting my way around the golf course better,” said Thomas, who finished T-65 last year at Oak Hill in his title defence.

“I think I took for granted how good I did that there for a couple of years,” he continued. “I just would accidentally find myself in contention in tournaments way more often by not forcing the issue or not making things harder than it needed to be. That’s what I would say more what I’m trying to kind of get into because, like I said, I feel great about my golf. I really have kind of towards the end of last year but especially the start of this year and as the year’s gone on.”

Before heading to Charlotte, Thomas ventured from his home in south Florida to spend last Sunday and Monday at Valhalla. He turned pro in 2013 and wasn’t eligible for the 2014 PGA won there by Rory McIlroy. He needed to refamiliarise himself with the Nicklaus-designed layout that also hosted the 2008 Ryder Cup.

Getting any advice from Woods, who also is expected to compete this week, has been kind of a non-starter. Thomas has tried to pick his brain. He always leaves wanting, but he understands. Woods isn’t trying to be difficult.

“It’s one of those things I think I’ve asked him plenty of questions… where you feel like you want to just get like a notebook out and write down everything he says, you think he’s going to give you this elaborate answer,” Thomas began. “But I think you see that a lot in like coaching and sports, it’s like sometimes the best to ever do it are the worst at explaining how they did it. To him it was very easy at the time.

“You talk to [Michael Jordan] and how he won all those rings and how he was able to dominate everybody, like he makes it sound pretty easy. I think Tiger’s pretty similar to that. When he was going about it, it didn’t seem very difficult, but he was just better than everybody else, and it seemed pretty easy at the time. I don’t really get anything out of him if I try to in that aspect.”

Of course, the only solution then is to find out for himself. Getting reacquainted with Valhalla was the first step. And a good one.

“I hadn’t played it in a long time. I hadn’t played it in eight to 10 years, to be honest,” Thomas said. “I remembered more than I thought I would. It hasn’t changed a lot, more so just some new tees and cleared some trees out to make it way more spectator-friendly. But yeah, it was great. I have some pretty cool memories of Valhalla, and I’m excited to hopefully make some of my own but on the other side of the ropes for a change.”

If that should happen, maybe he could explain to Tiger how he did it.