ROLAND, Ark. — Hard on himself and demonstrative, Alabama’s Justin Thomas is worth watching at the Western Amateur.
Unlike the even-keel clones that populate golf at the top, Thomas has some fire. No obscenities, no club-tossing, just the self-condemnation that goes along with being a perfectionist. You need to be close enough to hear him and the no-ropes policy at The Alotian Club allows such access.
For instance, on the 225-yard fourth — his 13th hole — on Wednesday, he missed twice. The first was a swing at a wasp. The second was a tee ball so far left that he pleaded for an "unbelievable break." No such luck. It disappeared into the hillside foliage that is more to enhance the setting than to catch a tee shot
Forty-five yards left of target, Thomas said to nobody in particular, after hitting a provisional ball. Aware of the small gallery, he said a facetitious, "Thanks for coming."
Double bogey on the card and back to minus four for the tournament, he walked off the fourth green with a golf glove to the thigh that produced a ka-pow.
Because getting to the match play portion of the Western is a two-step process, the mental approach is different. At the U.S. Amateur, for instance, the low 64 go into match play. At the Western, players must survive the 36-hole cut — the low 44 and ties after Wednesday — and then be one of the low 16 after another 36 holes.
In football parlance, Thomas with five holes to go in his second round is the equivalent of Arkansas leading Alabama by 10 points at halftime. Common sense says run a low-risk offense, eat up the clock, play great defense, and hang on. For Thomas and others in pursuit of the Sweet Sixteen, the idea is to get low and go lower.
Attack was his response to the double bogey.
He crushed a tee shot on the 425-yard fifth and asked his bag-toting mother for the yardage on a nearby sprinkler head one stride shy of his ball. "Seventy-three," she said. His approach had that click that says stick and he tapped in the 4-foot birdie putt while Michael Kim was getting a ruling about whether he was entitled to a drop from behind a huge fan.
Kim, the second-ranked amateur in the world prior to this week, was the reason for following the 7:40 a.m. group that started almost an hour late because of some rain. Kim played awful on his way to 84, but the Cal junior was all class. He complimented Thomas and Andrew Yun on their good shots, thanked Thomas for spotting his ball on a blind shot, and made do with his misses. He fought his driver all day, resorting to a long iron off some tees.
Kim finishing near the bottom in an amateur event is comparable to Tiger Woods missing a 36-hole cut on the PGA Tour.
Thomas, who had a first-round 68, was minus five with the par-five eighth just ahead when his approach on the seventh was too long. His pine tree-high flop rolled seven feet past and he left the par putt short, dead in the hole. Talking to himself, he emphatically deposited his putter in his bag.
At that point, I was on the fence about Thomas. Then, he sold me.
First, he apologized to his mother for getting mad. Then, he grabbed his golf bag and boarded the shuttle for the uphill ride to the tee. Once there, he whacked his tee shot and slung the bag over his shoulder, giving his mother a needed break. From just short of the bunker, his eagle chip-in was worth a low five from Yun and set up a 70 and a solid position for the final two rounds.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.