And when Thomas went off to play at the University of Alabama, he had the good fortune of being teammates with Lee Knox, whose father Jeff Knox is an Augusta National member and has often served as the tournament’s non-competing marker on the weekend.
Each spring and winter, Knox would invite a couple of lucky teammates to come spend the day and play the course. That day, now nearly 10 years ago, remains one of his happiest memories.
“It was a perfect day, chilly in the morning and nice in the day,” Thomas said. “Bobby (Wyatt, his Alabama teammate and future SEC champion) and I were grinning ear-to-ear all day. We were so nervous on the first tee shot of just a regular round of golf. It was fun. … You take it in and enjoy it and really get to practicing, because you want to be playing and sitting here (in the interview room) one day.”
Now it’s time for Thomas to elevate himself from participant to serious contender. He took a big step at the 2020 Masters with a fourth-place finish. He held a share of the 36-hole lead, but never really got enough traction to threaten Dustin Johnson’s path to the green jacket on a soft, autumnal golf course, nothing like the firm and fast conditions expected this week.
“I know I can play this place well,” Thomas said. “I love this golf course. I feel like it’s a place that I’m going to win at some point, at least I hope, and I feel like I can do it multiple times. But at the end of the day there’s only one person that wins every week and I just need to keep working until – if and when it’s my time.”
Thomas continues to use every opportunity to prepare for the Masters and has come up with a few unique applications.
In the WGC-Match Play Championship two weeks ago, Thomas used his final match to get ready for Augusta. Since he had been mathematically eliminated from advancing to the next stage of the event, Thomas used his final match with Louis Oosthuizen to hit some Augusta-like shots -- even when they weren’t necessarily the shots required at that moment. He worked drivers with a draw, imagining it was the 13th at Augusta or he’d pretend the green he was playing had a front-left hole location like No. 4.
It was real-life fantasy golf.
“Obviously, I still wanted to win my match against Louis, but my week was done and I was trying to use that,” Thomas said. “That day was the beginning of trying to get ready for Augusta.”
Despite the trouble at the Match Play Championships, Thomas has been in fine form. He missed by one shot getting in a playoff at the Tournament of Champions and he erased a seven-shot deficit after 36 holes to win the Players Championship. Thomas hopes it all carries over this week.
“It’s golf. It’s a major. It’s the Masters,” Thomas said. “Everybody wants to win it, but it’s still golf. But hopefully, at the almost age of 28 now, I’ve matured a little bit and understand if and when it’s my time, it will happen.”