Family connection makes Thomas' major win all the more memorable

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mike Thomas had tears in his eyes as he reached into his front, right pants pocket. His son, Justin, had clinched the 99th PGA Championship title only minutes earlier, but Mike already had the winning ball, a Titleist 2 with four red dots around the number, to add to the collection.

He pulled his hand out of that pocket and proudly produced the ball, holding it between his thumb and two fingers for the swarm of reporters around him.

"This is going to go right with the rest of them," he explained.

In the pro shop at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Kentucky, where Mike is the head professional, there is a display of golf balls, each one marked with the tournament at which it was used by his son in victory.

There are plenty of them in the display, from junior golf to the collegiate level to the professional ranks, in which Justin already owns five career wins at the tender age of 24.

This one was more special. It wasn't just a major, it was the major most closely associated with PGA professionals.

Justin Thomas learned to play the game as soon as he could walk, wobbling around Harmony Landing with a cut-down driver. Legend around the club is that his first words were "bag of balls," a paean to his early practice-range sessions. By the time he was 5 or 6, he'd tell anyone who would listen that he was going to win major championships someday.

Not that his bravado meant anything.

"I said that, too," Mike recalled of his childhood days, "but I sucked."

When he was old enough, Justin started playing money games with his dad. Nine holes in the twilight, loser owes the winner a dollar.

"It was pretty heated out there," the son said with a smile. "And I'm a pretty sore loser, so I did not handle it well when I lost and had to give up a dollar."

At the age of 7, he had a front-row seat for Tiger Woods' dramatic 2000 PGA Championship victory over Bob May at Valhalla, not far from Justin's family's home.

He still remembers vivid details of the experience.

"That week was the reason that I was like, 'OK, this is really what I want to do,'" Justin said. "I was watching it in the clubhouse, and he hits the putt on camera, and before it can fall in on TV, I can just hear the roar outside. I'll never forget that. It's crazy to be sitting up here now after watching him do his champion's toast and hoping that I'm there one day, and I am."

Justin's journey to major championship success didn't begin that day. It didn't begin at Harmony Landing. It didn't even begin with his father, who remains his instructor to this day.

No, this journey began long before he was even born.

Paul Thomas, Justin's paternal grandfather, was a PGA professional, too. He played in the 1962 U.S. Open and for decades worked at a country club in Zanesville, Ohio.

He wasn't at Quail Hollow Club this week, but he was watching from home. Not long after Justin had lifted the Wanamaker Trophy for the first time on the 18th green, they spoke with each other on the phone.

"You're something else," Paul told Justin. "This is the first of many."

Justin didn't get overly emotional in the aftermath of his win, but just like his father when pulling that winning golf ball out of his pocket, he did become a bit teary-eyed when speaking about what his grandfather means to him.

"I love my grandpa so much," he said. "I've just spent so many times with him on the golf course. He's watched me play and win so many junior golf tournaments. It would have been great if he could have been here. I mean, I understand he couldn't. But I'm just glad that he could watch it and we can share this together."

There's a photograph on the wall in Mike's office at Harmony Landing. It shows Arnold Palmer standing over a putt while Paul is in the background, puffing on a cigar as he waited his turn.

Justin loves that photograph. He often speaks about it when regaling people with stories of his family's history in the game.

Soon there will be another golf ball added to the display, and likely another photograph nailed to the wall.

Right next to Paul Thomas and Arnold Palmer, you can just imagine an image of Justin and the PGA Championship trophy, the one The King was never able to win.

He's now the eighth winner in history whose father was a PGA professional. Every major championship is special, especially a player's first. Based on his bloodlines, this one was even more important.

"It's just a great win for the family," Justin said. "It's a moment we'll never forget -- all of us."