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125 Years of Golf in America: Kentucky May 1, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. With the 125th anniversary coming at the end of 2019, every week throughout the year we're highlighting how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. 

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Watch: 2013 U.S. Women's Amateur champion Emma Talley reflects on her junior/amateur golf days in the Bluegrass State

Thomas Giving Kentucky Golf Some Cachet

By Dave Shedloski

Few Kentuckians have accomplished more than Justin Thomas, a former world No. 1 who already owns a major title. (USGA/JD Cuban)

The Commonwealth of Kentucky, the 15th state to join the Union, in 1792, has produced its share of prominent golfers, but it’s safe to say that no player has accomplished more – and in just a few short years – than Justin Thomas.

Born in Louisville and raised in Goshen, Thomas at age 25 already has ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking – becoming, last May, the 21st player to be No. 1 in the world – won a major, the 2017 PGA Championship, and that same year captured the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour’s season-long competition. Thomas also carded a 9-under 63 in the third round of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, the lowest round in relation to par in the championship's history (it matched the lowest 18-hole score in a U.S. Open).

On the team side, he represented the United States of America in the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup. And team golf is something Thomas knows quite a lot about from his amateur days.

In 2010, he played for the USA in the Junior Ryder Cup in Wales. In 2012, he was a member of the USA World Amateur Team that competed for the Eisenhower Trophy. The following spring, Thomas helped lead Alabama to the NCAA Division I national championship, and later that summer went 2-0-1 for the USA Team in its 17-9 Walker Cup victory over Great Britain & Ireland at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y.

That’s quite a list. But it shouldn’t be that surprising, considering that golf is in his blood. In addition to his father Mike, who is the PGA professional at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Justin’s grandfather, Paul Thomas, a native of Ashland, Ky., was a PGA professional in Ohio for nearly a half-century.

“I was very fortunate to have the kind of access I did to play golf. That’s not something a lot of kids have,” said Thomas, who now lives in Jupiter, Fla. “My dad as my coach was an advantage. My grandfather also being a PGA professional helped me. If anything, Kentucky does have a diverse number of courses, some very good ones.”

Thomas is putting those advantages from his formative years to good use. For the past three years he has hosted the Justin Thomas Junior Championship at Harmony Landing, an American Junior Golf Association event. The latest edition was held just after he finished tied for 12th in the Masters Tournament. Before the start of his tournament, Thomas announced the creation of the Justin Thomas Foundation, which will benefit, among other organizations, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana and The First Tee of Louisville.

“I love that I’m from Kentucky; it’s a beautiful state – the topography, the horses … and the people are so friendly,” Thomas said.

Was there an advantage growing up in the Bluegrass State? Depends which Thomas you ask.

“The best thing for Justin’s game being from Kentucky was the simple fact he couldn’t play golf in the winter,” said Mike Thomas. “We’d go to North Carolina or Florida for a junior event in the spring, and people would be asking me what he’d been working on because he was playing so well. I’d say, he’s been working on video games. The time off was good for him.”

“I didn’t think it was an advantage,” Justin said with a laugh. “But at that time, I did probably need to get away from it, whereas now I have no trouble putting the clubs away for a couple of weeks if I have the opportunity.”

The most prominent golfers born in Kentucky include two-time U.S. Senior Open champion Kenny Perry and 2005 Walker Cup competitor J.B. Holmes, who were home-state heroes for the 2008 USA Ryder Cup Team  at Valhalla Golf Club near Louisville. Left-hander Russ Cochran won a Senior Open Championship conducted by The R&A, and before turning professional, Emma Talley won the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

Other than Thomas, the lone major champion with Bluegrass roots is Bobby Nichols, who captured the 1964 PGA Championship at Columbus (Ohio) Country Club. The runners-up that year were Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

Thomas knows them all. It’s not an extensive list. Kentucky’s most prominent sports are horse racing (and the many horse farms that support it) and college basketball, with the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville often ranked among the best teams in the nation.

But he is helping put a golf face on the state.

“I mean, what is Kentucky really famous for? We’ve got the [Kentucky] Derby, and we’ve got bourbon, though I’m sure there are a few other things if I thought about it,” said Thomas. “I’d like to someday be even bigger. I want it to be undisputed. So, hopefully, I can do a few more things in the game.”

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.