It was the kind of day you dream about: golf at the superb Stanwich Club in Greenwich, CT, followed by an intimate Q&A with 23-year-old Justin Thomas – the third-youngest golfer ever to make the cut in a PGA Tour® event and winner of the 2015 CIMB Classic tournament.
It was honestly one of the most severe tests I've faced.
Thomas was fresh from his third-place finish at the Travelers Championship a day earlier, where he posted an intimidating score – an ominous indicator of what might be in store for us amateurs as we set out to play a round on one of the most challenging courses in the country.
On the green
The course's design requires you try to hit the ball farther off the tee and have pinpoint accuracy when shooting on its smaller-than-average greens. It was easily one of the most challenging tests I've faced as a golfer. Nonetheless, experiencing this elite course – with greens as smooth as a polished hardwood floor – was truly unforgettable.
But the real highlight was hitting the links with Thomas. "How's it going so far?" he asked us warmly as we met him on the 13th tee – Stanwich's stunning signature hole that features both a creek and a pond – before suggesting a five-man scramble.
Any trepidation we had about squaring off against the Kentucky star evaporated, and in fact, we were excited about our chances of making birdie with the 31st-ranked golfer in the world backing us.
In this casual, team-based format, everyone tees off, and then plays from the spot of the best shot. Our team for the day, one of 18 playing, consisted of me, my friend Brett, a father and son duo, and Thomas.
I went first on the 165-yard hole, hoping not to embarrass myself. I knocked the shot 15 feet past the flag, but honestly, I was just delighted to get the ball airborne, never mind on the green.
Brett was up next, and his shot stopped just wide of mine. Thomas's shot ended up in a bunker, an outcome that surprised everyone, including the man who struck it. "Would you mind if I hit another one?" he asked. "That's OK with you guys, right?"
It sure the heck was. But his second try from the tee was short and to the right of the hole. I know I'll never forget the time my one-tee shot was better than two from Justin Thomas!
Our other teammate singed the rim on his birdie bid, but his father drained his effort, putting it right in the middle of the cup. From there it was handshakes and photos with Thomas, before we went off to the 14th hole with smiles on our faces and twos on our scorecards.
Dinner and discussion
Once the round wrapped up, we had dinner on the patio, soaking up the spectacular view of the 9th and 18th greens and the silver Long Island Sound, visible just beyond the tree line.
An awards ceremony was presented by Citi, the host of the event, and prizes were handed out to those who had the longest drive and were closest to the pin. Then we had the chance to pepper Thomas with questions.
When asked how someone of his stature (5'10 and 145 pounds) could consistently hit a ball over 300 yards, Thomas explained that he didn't focus on strength training, but on being "flexible, loose, and relaxed" instead.
He also praised professional golfers of previous generations, who hit 300-plus-yard drives while using persimmon wood drivers and balata [a type of rubber] golf balls. Considering that average driving distances on the PGA Tour at the time were some 30 to 40 yards less than they are now, with none of the modern equipment that exists to minimize miss-hits, you could only agree with Thomas when he described the feat as "absurd."
Finally, Thomas referred to a practice round he'd played with one of his role models at the PGA Championship two weeks prior. He admitted to paying close attention to how the Hall of Famer interacted with the gallery. "I'm taking notes from him," Thomas said, "because I want the fans on my side."
By the end of that fantastic day at Stanwich, it was safe to say that every golfer in the room was on his side.
Private Pass BEYOND® provided cardmembers the exclusive opportunity to purchase tickets to golf and dine with Justin Thomas at the Stanwich Club. For more ways Citi cardmembers can receive access to some of their favorite athletes, visit https://www.citiprivatepass.com/beyond.