By Sean Martin, Golfweek
SEA ISLAND, Ga. – Justin Thomas knew something was off during the second round of last year’s Jones Cup. Two shots hooked into hazards had led to double bogeys. “I told myself I just had to stay in it because you never know what can happen,” he said.
That’s especially true at the Jones Cup, where high scores are hardly unheard of and don’t necessarily eliminate players from contention. One slight swing change – Thomas tried to feel like he was opening the clubface on the takeaway – and some good, old-fashioned patience helped him hold one of amateur golf’s most prestigious titles at the tournament’s end.
Thomas’ double bogey at Ocean Forest’s second hole - his 11th hole of the second round - dropped him to 5 over for the tournament. It was his second double bogey that day and his third in his first 29 holes. He played the final 25 holes in 5 under to win by two shots over UCLA’s Manav Shah. Thomas made six birdies and just one bogey over the final 25 holes.
It’s not hard to make up ground at Ocean Forest. Pars go a long way. Birdies are bonuses.
Before Thomas shot even-par 216 to win last year, the previous three Jones Cups had been won with over-par scores. Former Kennesaw State player Matt Nagy was able to finish ninth last year in spite of a first-round 79. Donald Constable shot 16-over 232 at last year’s Jones Cup, then earned his PGA Tour card at Q-School later that year. Beau Hossler, who led during the second round of the 2012 U.S. Open, also was 16 over at last year’s Jones Cup.
Nathan Smith, the four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champ, uses the Jones Cup as part of his pre-Masters preparation. He’s scheduled to play his fourth Masters in April. He faces another challenge shared by many of his fellow competitors: the tournament’s dates mean players from colder climates must face Ocean Forest’s myriad challenges without their ‘A’ games. The driving range and putting green were still seeing heavy traffic as the sun set Thursday, the tournament’s eve. Players weren’t just using the practice day to prepare; many were just trying to shake off the winter rust.
“It’s unique to have an event this big, with this many good players, at the end of January. This is probably one of the biggest challenges we face all year,” said Smith, of Pittsburgh. “You have to drive it on a rope all week. It always plays long because of the wind. It’s tough.”
Ocean Forest, which hosted the 2001 Walker Cup, features firm fairways that often deflect off-line tee shots toward trouble. The winter weather in coastal Georgia means players often face cold, windy conditions. Patrick Reed, a PGA Tour rookie this season, won the 2010 Jones Cup with a 6-over 222 total in a week with high winds and heavy rains.
Thomas has seen both sides of Ocean Forest. He was 16 over par in his Jones Cup debut in 2011, when he was a high-school senior living in Kentucky. Thomas was an Alabama freshman when he won last year. There’s no coincidence his play here improved when he moved to a Southern climate. Having experienced all of Ocean Forest’s challenges also helped.
“More than any golf course I’ve played, this course just tests your patience and your mental game,” Thomas said. “There was such a big difference from my first year because you realize how good a score par is.
“Sometimes you’re not losing much to the field with a bogey. It’s just so hard and you have to be so calm and patient. Sometimes you just have to grind out that 76 or 77.”
Thomas showed that last year, when a second-round 75 couldn’t keep him from winning.