BY BRAD LOCKE
TUPELO – Steve Thomas won't have his “good luck charm” with him next week. Yet all signs are pointing toward something great for the Oxford native.
The 50-year-old Thomas is playing in his first U.S. Senior Open, which begins Thursday at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan. He's going without Charley Callaway, his longtime teacher whose presence always seems to portend success for Thomas.
But the two worked intensely this week at Tupelo Country Club, and Thomas feels a confidence that might give the casual observer pause.
“To be honest with you, and I'm not trying to sound boastful or anything, I think I have as good a shot as anybody at winning this Open,” Thomas said Thursday after a six-hour practice.
Sure, Thomas was once the PGA Tour's longest driver, but he left the game for eight years, working in the security business. Dissatisfied with his job, he returned to his true love two years ago, playing regional tours as he honed his game in hopes of securing a Champions Tour card.
He failed to qualify for two Champions events earlier this year before winning Open qualifying at Dancing Rabbit Golf Club in Philadelphia on June 12.
That's when Thomas' improved game came together. His length has stayed with him, but he now has what eluded him during winless tour career – a short game and smarts.
That's thanks to Callaway, who always seems to bring out the best in Thomas.
In 1982, Thomas and Callaway finished 1-2 at the Missouri Open. Last year, Thomas shot a 59 as he and Callaway took some poor saps' money in a pickup game. Thomas has set three course records while playing with Callaway.
And at Dancing Rabbit, Thomas earned his ticket to Prairie Dunes when he edged the 57-year-old Callaway by a stroke.
“He's always been a good luck charm,” Thomas said. “I get around Charlie, I've always played extremely good golf.”
Callaway's teaching commitments – the Jackson native resides in Magee – prevented him from accompanying Thomas to Kansas. Callaway has him prepared for this, though, and Thomas is taking heart in the good omens he's seen lately.
Thomas will tee off with the first group Thursday, just as he did at Dancing Rabbit. One of his two playing partners that day will be Rocky Rockett, an old friend.
None of that will matter if Thomas can't master Prairie Dunes. Deep rough – think Winged Foot – and high winds are something Thomas could not duplicate in his preparations. That's why he left Friday to get in some extra practice time.
Callaway thinks the course's tight confines – it will play between 6,800 and 6,900 yards – could hurt Thomas' chances. Thomas thinks otherwise.
“I'm going to play smart golf, and I know around what score it's going to take to win the U.S. Open,” Thomas said.
Greatest driver in golf'
Thomas is a bomber off the tee, but what makes him dangerous is his accuracy. Callaway is so bold as to anoint Thomas “the greatest driver in the history of golf.”
Well, he hits about 15 or 16 greens per round, a number Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh would kill for. Thomas recently played with John Jacobs, currently ranked 16th in driving distance on the Champions Tour, and was out-hitting him by a good 30 yards (which makes him longer than tour leader Dan Pohl).
“Tee to green on the senior tour, there's not anybody who can hit the ball better than Steve,” Callaway said.
He's also more well-rounded.
Thomas switched to a belly putter in November, and his scoring average has since dropped from 70.8 to 68.2. He and Callaway worked on nothing but Thomas' short game this week.
He's learned to be more judicious with his driver, and he has a caddie, Martin Ramirez, who helps him slow down the game.
Thomas also has good sponsor support from Bridgestone Golf and Anthony Ling, who owns Auto Acceptance in Tupelo. His parents are behind him, too (his father, Pepper, played in the major leagues and is currently director of golf at Ole Miss).
The past three months, Thomas' game has reached a new level.
“When I played on the tour back in the '80s, I didn't work at my game as hard as I have in the last two years,” he said.
He'll try to qualify for the remaining Champions Tour events this season, and if he makes the top 50 of the money list, he'll get a pass to the finals of qualifying school.
“My heart is in golf. I've always loved the game,” he said. “What I really want to do is win. The winning, to me, is the most important.”
Might as well start winning now.