ERIN, Wis. -- There’s a Louisville accent.
It’s easiest to spot by just asking a native to pronounce the name of their hometown. You’ll hear it, even in the ex-pats. It’s an inescapable hybrid of midwestern speech patterns plus southern twang, adequately representative of the not-quite-midwestern, not-quite southern purgatory in which the city itself is stuck.
If you’ll listen closely, Justin Thomas still has it. Maybe barely, but it’s there — takes a trained ear perhaps to spot it. Just trust me, it’ll peek out through a finishing vowel from time to time.
Perhaps to the wider golf audience, it’d be easy to forget where the now-owner of the best U.S. Open round ever hails from. He lives in South Florida now, and he’s forgiven — Kentuckiana doesn’t provide conditions adequate for a professional golfer in, say, February. The ROLL TIDEs come fast and often when you’re following him, too. This is the guy that won a national title at Alabama, and still lives and dies with the Crimson Tide as if he hailed from Vestavia Hills.
But somewhere not far beneath the surface, is some 24-year-old kid that grew up on WLKY and WDRB — just like everyone else in Kentuckiana. Maybe that’s how, why, I stumbled upon the greatest round in the history of the U.S. Open.
Because I know that accent.
Chances are, I’ve probably known Justin Thomas longer than you’ve known Justin Thomas. Well, let’s correct that. I’ve known of Justin Thomas for over a decade.
I’m from southern Indiana, he’s from Louisville. I’m 26, he’s 24 — and just a pair of academic years separate us. Perhaps, I haven’t even known of Justin Thomas for that long. But the Louisville and Southern Indiana golf community isn’t that large. When my club pro made the leap for a job in Louisville, my junior golf comrades and I would often travel down the 90-minute, two-lane road trek for a tune up. We’d hear stories. Hey, have you heard of this pro’s kid from down here in Louisville? He’s supposed to be the real deal.
The thing about those Real Deals though is that they’re usually not. Most often, they’re not. The path to the PGA Tour is littered with junior phenoms that went bust, with parents that pushed perhaps too hard to find the next Tiger Woods. You’re not supposed to walk 18 holes with That Pro’s Kid as he turns in the best round in the history of America’s national championship. You’re not supposed to watch him walk out of a Fox broadcast booth to first find his father, his coach — That Pro — before taking a single step farther.
But Justin Thomas was very much the real deal back then, just as he is now. Whether he gets his major championship on Sunday or not, he’s a superstar. On Saturday afternoon, Thomas secured his place in the sport with a 9-under-par 63 at Erin Hills in the third round of the U.S. Open, clinching himself a spot in the final Sunday pairing alongside Brian Harman. And there, he’ll have a chance to play for the major championship that will validate his ascent to stardom.
But yes, yes — about that round. You’ll hear about a 3-wood from 302 on the 18th to set up his record-setting eagle. You’ll see clips of his birdie at the 17th that sent shockwaves echoing through the Kettle Moraine. You’ll hear about his miraculous second shot at the 12th that perhaps saved his round, when I was ready to leave him for dead in search of another name on the leaderboard. The highlights, the shots, the putts. I saw it all, from the first hole to the record-breaking eagle putt at 18. It was an amazingly perfect show of golf, on a track perfectly suited to the fairly diminutive dude who hits the golf ball way farther than he should.
But walking with him step by step through the undulating Erin Hills on Saturday, perhaps the most striking thing was just the relative normalcy with which the 24-year-old went about this record march. It was stoic. With throngs of support throughout the golf course, he didn’t fist pump after the birdies in bulk. He didn’t acknowledge the Roll Tides. (I lost count after about 35 — keep in mind, we’re in Wisconsin.) For the pro’s kid from Louisville, shattering Johnny Miller’s beloved record was simply business as usual.
What is perhaps so striking about that is that isn’t Thomas. He’s an affable, like-able, passionate, talkative, thoughtful dude. He’s part of the famed Spring Break crew with Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth. Fun. All that stuff. You’d expect a reaction or two, or an outburst or two. That’s Justin Thomas. He cares. Cares a ton. To combine the Tiger-like, zombie, golf-killer mode he went into on Saturday with his undeniable talent should scare the rest of the field tomorrow — and the rest of golf for years to come.
His relative calm as he made history perhaps best shone through with what he did right before his eagle putt to break the 18-hole scoring record before thousands on the 18th. With playing partner Jonathan Randolph putting the ball off the playing surface right before his putt on the 18th to make history, Thomas had a moment before he’d have the chance to sink his 63rd and final shot of the day.
So he sat. Plopped down right on the edge of his bag. Didn’t re-read the break, didn’t pace around the green. Didn’t look to be a man practicing deep breathing exercise, or progressive muscle relaxation. Just a kid, a 24-year-old kid — lost in his thoughts.
You could’ve asked him what he was thinking, but I’m not sure he would’ve known. Especially after big moments, golf press conferences tend to be onslaughts of “what were you thinking” and “how does it feels” and “talk abouts.” Asking someone to recite perfect prose about a moment from two hours ago after the mental rigors of major championship golf seems futile.
So I didn’t ask about what crossed his mind as he sat on the bag before that putt. If he thought about Johnny Miller. If he thought about his Dad.
But I know that accent. And I wondered if he thought about Louisville.
I’m from nearby. He’s from there. You see, Louisville cares. Man, Louisville cares. Perhaps too much, even.
Even growing up across the river, it’s hard to ignore just how much the city of Louisville loves sports — and its sporting heroes. Perhaps more than they love themselves, at times. It’s Muhammad Ali and Barbaro, the Cats and the Cards. Louisville is not sports obsessed as much as it is sports addicted, requiring an IV of sports events hooked directly to their veins to persist.
But, yeah, Louisville’s had something else dominating the headlines this week. Make no mistake, as much as it loves golf, Justin Thomas’ hometown is a college sports town that loves its Cardinals first. He’d tell you as much. With an NCAA scandal threatening to strike the city of its greatest sporting moment in the last 30 years, I wanted to know. Not his thoughts on Andre McGee. But if in his moment of history, I wanted to know if he was thinking about home. About Louisville.
And from an otherwise deadpan press conference, his eyes lit up.
“I probably can’t put it into words.”
But he did. He put it into words. You could hear the passion for his hometown — and for his dad — as he raved about what it’d mean to his father’s beloved Harmony Landing Golf Club, right across the river from Indiana on the north side of the Louisville metro. He glowed about his St. Xavier High, and the support he’s received since his early days. He raved about his brand new AJGA event, and being able to give back to the junior golf community he dominated for so long.
There’s even something about him, a quiet confidence that shone through on Saturday in his play, that perhaps lends from Louisville’s greatest champion.
“I mean, I've always kind of strived to be the state and the city's best athlete, golfer — whatever it may be.”
By the end of the day on Sunday, he might be well on his way.
I’ll never know exactly what went through Justin Thomas’ mind as he sat there on his bag on the 18th on Saturday. He said he was mostly just hungry at that point — not for history, but for actual food. Who could blame him? Basic sustenance ranks higher on Maslow’s hierarchy than eagle putts for history. But he might have thought about the moment. What it meant. Johnny Miller. Might have been about Louisville. Could’ve been about his mom, his dad, his journey from his hometown to this point. Or could’ve just been thinking about food. I don’t know.
But it made me think about home. My dad. My own journey in golf -- from college player to weekend writer. And life’s odd twists and turns that end up with you being the lone, novice media member chasing around a guy who used to kick your ass in junior events as a kid, as he plays the best round of golf in the history of the damn U.S. Open.
Like I said, I know that accent.