PGA CHAMPIONSHIP '24: Justin Thomas gets rare experience playing a major in his hometown

Published May. 10, 2024 2:38 p.m. ET

Justin Thomas was back home in Kentucky for an occasion different from any other time in Louisville. The city honored him with its “Hometown Hero” award, and a 60-foot banner was unfurled from the building he used to pass on the way to Saint Xavier High School.

Thomas was so choked up at the presentation he couldn't speak until he eventually said, “The things I've felt today, I've never felt in any golf tournament I've won.”

This was a week before the best golfers in the world — one of them a Louisville native — arrive for the PGA Championship at Valhalla.

It's rare for a player to have a hometown major in a city that doesn't have a steady diet of championship golf. Thomas is curious how he will respond. He is a two-time PGA champion, winning at Quail Hollow in 2017 and Southern Hills in 2022, which also was his last victory as he continues to work his way back into form.


“It will be a new experience for me,” Thomas said. “The hardest thing I'll have is putting pressure on myself and wanting to perform well. But at the same, I do a good job of that without having a home event. Maybe two negatives will equal a positive.”

Collin Morikawa and Max Homa grew up in the LA area. The U.S. Open went to Los Angeles Country Club last year, but they are regulars at the PGA Tour event at Riviera, the next best thing to a major. Xander Schauffele and Charley Hoffman grew up in San Diego. They play Torrey Pines every year on tour — the U.S. Open in 2021 wasn't that much different.

Thomas has talked to Keegan Bradley, a New England native, about what it was like to play the U.S. Open — and contend on the weekend — at Brookline outside Boston in the 2022 U.S. Open.

“I told him what I tried to do is look into the crowd and make eye contact with people and see how excited they were and try to feed off that,” Bradley said.

His other message: Embrace the moment. This doesn't happen very often.

“My motto for the week was, 'Why look forward to something for so long and not enjoy it?” Bradley said.

Tommy Fleetwood would second that notion. Fleetwood grew up in Southport, England, and played the British Open at Royal Birkdale in 2017. He opened with a 76 and gamely rallied to make the cut and tie for 27th.

“There's pressure from yourself because it means that much more. Then there's pressure of playing before your home crowd,” Fleetwood said. “But I mean, how lucky are you to play a home Open where you grew up?

“It's so rare you get to do things like that,” he said. “If you don't embrace it, you'll look back and wish that you did.”

Thomas also wants to check in with Rory McIlroy about playing a British Open in his native Northern Ireland. That didn't start — or end well — for McIlroy at Royal Portrush. He made a quadruple-bogey 8 on the first hole, shot 79 and his rally to make the cut fell short.

“I remember getting onto the first tee Thursday and feeling overwhelmed, like I hadn't really prepared for it or visualized it or took my mind to a place where I was expecting to feel what I felt,” McIlroy said. “I don't know that you can. You can't prepare for it until you actually feel it.”

The list is short of players dealing with a hometown major.

Jack Nicklaus played the 1964 PGA Championship in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio (12 years before the inaugural Memorial). Columbus Country Club wasn't his home course, and Nicklaus had only played it four times since high school.

But it was a busy week. Gary Player stayed at his house and Nicklaus jokingly said he missed a Tuesday practice round because he had to do Player's laundry. Nicklaus, the defending PGA champion, was six behind going into the last round and closed with a 64 to finish three shots behind Bobby Nichols.

Jeff Sluman was the PGA champion when the 1989 U.S. Open went to Oak Hill in Rochester, where Sluman grew up. He agreed to do a daily diary for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, right up until he missed the cut.

Thomas has a history at Valhalla, but rarely with a club in his hand.

His father was the head pro at Harmony Landing, and he was an officer with the PGA of America when the PGA Championship came to Valhalla in 2000. Thomas was 7, just getting into golf. He said that week made it clear what he wanted to do for a living.

It helps that it was among the most memorable finishes in PGA Championship history. Tiger Woods birdied the last two holes in regulation to force a playoff with Bob May, and he went on to capture his third consecutive major on his way to the “Tiger Slam,” holding all four majors at the same time.

Thomas was in the clubhouse — too short to see anything with so many people — when Woods made his 6-foot birdie putt to force the playoff. He could hear the roars seconds before he saw the putt go in on TV. He remembers staying late in the clubhouse with hopes of running into Woods. Thomas had to settle for seeing Woods walk down a hallway into a room.

“I've watched the VHS of that tournament so many times as a kid,” Thomas said. “I'd get home and if nothing was on TV, I'd watch that over and over and over and over again.”

Thomas recalls going to a clinic on the practice range earlier in the week to see Jack Nicklaus, his final year playing all four majors.

“I went to school telling all my friends, ‘I got an autograph from the best golfer to ever play.’ And they go, ‘Oh, you got Tiger Woods?’ I said, ‘No, I got Jack Nicklaus’ autograph,'” Thomas said. “It was a very typical 7-year-old golf nerd thing to say.”

He wasn't much different at 15 when he attended the Ryder Cup at Valhalla in 2008. He was there when Jim Furyk's match clinched a rare victory for the Americans. Another Kentucky native, J.B. Holmes, pulled Thomas inside the ropes where the kid found himself high-fiving with Phil Mickelson.

Thomas missed the 2014 PGA Championship. He was playing a Korn Ferry Tour event in Springfield, Missouri, trying to earn a PGA Tour card.

Now, finally, he returns to a big stage at Valhalla — this time as a player, not a wide-eyed fan.


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