Ada, Mich. (July 24) – Justin Thomas’ birth certificate confirms that he’s 17 years old. Howver, he and his opponent in Saturday’s scheduled 36-hole U.S. Junior Amateur Championship final, 14-year-old Jim Liu, are both much older and wiser when it comes to competitive golf years.
The U.S. Junior Amateur finalists and friends probably couldn’t be more different in their pursuit of the same goal. Liu is a walking, smiling automaton, while Thomas likes to joke around and engage opponents in conversation between shots. Thomas even affectionately refers to his finals opponent as ‘Slim Jim.’
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Thomas is from Kentucky and Liu is from New York's Long Island, but they’ve taken two far different routes in reaching Saturday’s deciding match at Egypt Valley Country Club. Liu can be a birdie machine; in his second-round match against Davis Womble, he was eight under through the first 11 holes en route to scoring an 8-and-7 victory. In contrast, on Thursday, Thomas had to slog through wet weather on a grueling day to post victories in a pair of tightly-contested matches.
In reaching the finals, Liu took control of his semifinal round encounter on Thursday by stealth against upstart Robby Shelton, birdieing three straight holes, Nos. 13-15, to take a 2-up lead; he was four under on the first nine in the encounter. Battling an inconsistent putter, Thomas had to sweat the whole way and pull off uncanny shots in Friday’s afternoon session against Denny McCarthy, of Burtonsville, Md.
All-square at No. 18 in the semifinals, Thomas’ tee shot drifted right and hit the cart path, but he ultimately recovered to play a marvelous 62-yard second shot from a blind spot at No. 18 to tap-in range, resulting in extra holes after McCarthy holed his 6-footer. Seemingly equipped to handle the survive-and-advance dynamic, Thomas then had the last answer at the first extra hole, the par-4 first, two-putting for par from 20 feet right of the flagstick in a match that produced a loser in name only. McCarthy’s second flew the green and he misfired on his 5-foot par return for a halve that would’ve continued the match.
Both finalists are continuing to find ways to claim victory during a week when pre-championship favorites have fallen by the wayside. Thomas admits he watched as notable names fell off the match-play tree throughout the week and thought that could be me.
You cannot take anybody for granted, says Thomas, who will attend the University of Alabama on a golf scholarship in the fall of 2011. There’s no such thing as an easy match. If you’re playing in this championship, it means you’re a good player and you can win.
As Liu and Thomas have learned, it’s nearly impossible to put a value on being able to handle the ebb-and-flow of match play where each encounter presents a conscience-bending challenge on a regular basis.
They’re not all easy and you’re not going to win them all, says Thomas, who played 36 holes in scoring two victories on Friday. You learn when you get down not to get mad. You know how to think and what your frame of mind should be. You learn different ways to win.
Though Thomas won a national amateur event this spring, the Terra Cotta, and Liu advanced to the second round of last week’s U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, a victory on Saturday would enhance their junior golf careers. Liu is trying to become the youngest champion in the U.S. Junior Amateur’s 63-year history. Tiger Woods is the national championship’s youngest winner at 15 years, 6 months, 28 days; Liu stands at 14 years, 11 months, 15 days and is on the precipice of USGA history.
This is the biggest championship in junior golf, Liu says. No matter how it turns out, I will be happy.
And no matter how divergent their paths might have been, they’ll both know they’re right where they want to be when they stand on the first tee on Saturday morning.
With both of us having [reached] the [final], we’re not going to settle for second. I know ‘Slim Jim’ feels the same way. We’re going to be grinding it out to get that trophy, Thomas says. I don’t want to say it would be a failure if I didn’t [win], but I got myself here and now I need to try and finish it.
Andrew Blair is the communications director for the Virginia State Golf Association. He’s contributing articles at this week's U.S. Junior Amateur for the USGA.