PGA professional taught LPGA greats Tammie Green, Michele Redman
| Zanesville Times Recorder
ZANESVILLE – It has been more than three decades since Paul Thomas was the head golf professional at Zanesville Country Club, but his legacy is one that has remained strong with those who knew him.
Long before the golf world knew him as Justin Thomas’ grandfather, he was an icon at ZCC with 26 years in the pro shop from 1963-88. His impact as a swing coach, for casual members and big-time talents alike, was far reaching.
He was the pro at ZCC when golf began to boom around Zanesville. It was there he coached the likes of LPGA champions Tammie Green of Somerset and Michele Redman of Zanesville, along with five-time Zanesville District Golf Association Amateur champion and former Muskingum University All-American Adam Lescalleet.
Thomas died early Sunday at 89 as Justin was preparing for his final round at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. CBS made the announcement early in their telecast, which is when many around Zanesville heard the news.
One was Mike Durant, who worked under Thomas as a young professional and later returned to serve in the same role. Only he and Brett Steinhagen have been head pros at ZCC since Thomas left.
Durant said Thomas was passionate about the game, from playing to teaching to discussion.
“He loved to play it,” Durant said. “When he would hit a practice shot, or hit a shot when I was caddying for him, there was nothing else in the world. He was so into that and that passion just sort of spilled over. You worked for him and you couldn’t wait to go play.”
Longtime ZCC member Jim Spargrove, who joined in 1983, said Thomas “was the first one there and the last to leave from the pro shop every day.”
“He ran the shop, staged the golf carts, managed the driving range, marked the golf course and played golf and socialized with the members in the grill room,” Spargrove recalled. “I was fortunate to play in some Pro-Ams with him on Mondays and I remember everyone knowing who he was. Players would acknowledge him from a few fairways over. He was so well liked and respected by his fellow PGA members and well-known amateur players.”
Durant, who took over at ZCC in 1992, said he often uses Thomas’ teachings in his own job. He said Thomas always encouraged members to play.
“And that passion is what stands out,” Durant said of Thomas. “Sometimes he was tough and it kept you on your toes. You were always hustling and that’s a word he would always use. I still use that word today. If you hustle people will respond, and it creates a fun environment. I know our staff now, most of our kids love to hustle.”
Thomas’ teaching talent was rivaled only by his playing acumen, Durant said.
A native of Ashland, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Cincinnati as a child and graduated from Norwood High before turning pro at 17. He won a collection of Cincinnati-area events as an assistant pro at Western Hills Country Club before competing in the 1960 and 1961 PGA Championships.
Struggles on the tour led him to a career as a club pro, where he balanced an impressive playing career with his role as pro at ZCC. He later made the cut in the 1982, 1983 and 1987 U.S. Senior Opens, was twice named Central Ohio PGA Player of the Year and won the Central Ohio PGA Championship and COPGA Seniors twice each.
“He was one of the best players in the southern Ohio section year in and year out,” Durant said. “He played Jaycees one time with a group from (ZCC) in the American Cancer Society tournament and made nine birdies. He could flat-out play.”
Durant recalled a time when he was in college at Morehead State in the 1980s when Thomas asked him to caddy for him at a PGA Senior tournament in Lexington, Kentucky.
Since his wife, Phyllis, didn’t make the trip Durant joined Thomas at all of the couples events prior to the tournament. It was there where Durant met several big-name players, including legendary Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead, to name a few.
“PT was the best iron player and wedge player that I saw out there,” Durant said. “He played with Jerry Barber one time, and Jerry Barber was the short game guru of the 1950s and 1960s, maybe even early 70s. He was a good wedge player, but he wasn’t as good as PT. Jerry would knock it close, but PT would threaten the hole about every time.”
Durant said it was intimidating caddying for his former boss, but it was only a matter of time before Thomas broke the ice.
“After about five or six holes he looks at me and says ‘Mikey, I need your input. If you’re going to caddy you better speak up,'” Durant recalled.
That’s exactly what happened.
After Thomas hooked a tee shot after making the turn, he faced a second shot obstructed by a tree. Thomas pondered hooking a 5-wood over the tree to the green, but Durant insisted he take a more sensible approach.
“I said, ‘PT, you told me to speak up. You’ve been hitting every iron shot about five or six feet from the hole. Why don’t you just knock it down there, get a 7-iron or something in there and hit it in there to five feet.’ So he punched out, hit a 7-iron to five feet and made the birdie. He was either going to beat me up or be really happy after that. From then on I had a great time because we were working together.”
Durant said Thomas “struck the ball as good as anybody” in that event, but his putter wasn’t up to his usual standard. Many of his misses were from inside 10 feet.
“If he would have been just an average putter he would have contended,” Durant said.
Many of his later years were spent giving lessons in suburban Columbus, where he and Phyllis resided after leaving Zanesville. Both followed Justin’s career regularly, and Justin purchased scooters for them to ride at PGA events to ease the burden of extensive walking long courses.
Thomas was in attendance when Justin won the 2018 WCC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, the same site in which Thomas competed in the 1960 PGA Championship.
Thomas and son Mike, Justin’s father and coach, and a PGA club professional in Louisville, Kentucky, are members of the Zanesville District Golf Association Hall of Fame. Mike Thomas graduated from Zanesville High, along with brothers Scott, Rob and Perry.
Fittingly, Thomas went into the ZDGA Hall with Green, his most famous pupil, and Sam Zoller, the first ZDGA Amatuer champion who played at ZCC. Zoller died in Dec. 2020.
“I remember his Hall of Fame speech when he broke down talking about his children and his wife Phyllis, and how much they had given up so he could live his dream of being a PGA professional,” Spargrove said. “His legacy will live on through his family and friends. May he rest in peace.”
Prior to his induction, in an interview with longtime TR sports editor Sherry Dinan, Thomas offered up a glimpse of the future in a story published on Oct. 5, 2001.
“Mike and I won the Kentucky Father-Son title this year (in 2001) and he has an 8-year-old son who’s a pretty good little player,” Thomas said. “Justin had a hole-in-one when he was only 6 and he has already won three under-12 tournaments.”
While Thomas was often outspoken about Green and Redman and their play, he stayed in the shadows when it came to Justin. In his case, he simply enjoyed being Grandpa.
“He always knew Justin’s talent, but he always said that was Mike’s gig,” Durant said. “He would talk with him about golf all of the time, but it was more ‘hey, let’s work on that putting’, or, ‘hey I saw this out there.’ But Mike was in charge of helping him with his swing. PT knew the father-son relationship and knew how important that was. You can’t play at that high of level and have two sets of voices.”