KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Justin Thomas doesn’t have many regular games lined up during his rare appearances on the European Tour, so he was more than happy to play a nine-hole practice round this year in Abu Dhabi with a 21-year-old from South Africa.
It didn’t take long for him to pay close attention to a powerful lefty named Garrick Higgo.
“He had some serious, serious speed,” Thomas said Tuesday at the PGA Championship. “There’s a lot of holes out there that didn’t ask for that kind of speed, more of just finesse and hitting to the dogleg. But we got a couple of par 5s that he could let loose, and it was definitely a different sound than my ball made.”
Higgo, who turned 22 last week, makes his major championship debut at Kiawah Island as an emerging star who has grown accustomed to winning.
He arrived at the PGA Championship having won twice in his last three starts on the European Tour, both in the Canary Islands. The most recent was noteworthy for his hole-in-one in the final round, and for claiming his third European Tour title in just 26 starts. No one has won that much that quickly in Europe dating to 1990.
“It’s not that I didn’t expect this. I knew my game was good enough,” Higgo said. “But I don’t ‘expect’ to win. I think that makes it better in a way.”
The Ocean Course at Kiawah can be intimidating, especially in wind so strong the past two days that even big hitters are rediscovering that 3-irons can still be required on par 4s.
The field is the strongest for any major, with 99 of the top 100 in the world. That can be intimidating for a newcomer, except that Higgo is one of them and feels like one of them. Three titles in Europe in the past eight months have moved him to No. 51 in the world.
“It feels nice,” Higgo said. “I don’t feel that I’m out of place.”
For such an auspicious start to his pro career — two victories on various tours in each of the three years he has been a pro — it wasn’t always that smooth.
The talent was always there. He beat Cole Hammer in the round of 16 at the U.S. Junior Amateur in 2017 before losing on the 17th hole of the semifinals to Matthew Wolff.
He got the attention of UNLV, but he lasted only two semesters before returning home.
“I didn’t play that well,” he said with a soft smile. “I knew if I was at home, I knew where I could get my game. And I wasn’t going to get there at UNLV. I don’t mean it that way. I loved it there. I just don’t think it was the right fit for me.”
He still has a UNLV cover on his yardage book. He looks forward to going back one day. “They were building this massive stadium when I was there,” he said, unaware it was the new NFL home for the Raiders.
The curious decision when he returned to South Africa was that he decided to turn pro.
Higgo wasn’t among the top 100 in the world amateur ranking. He wasn’t winning amateur events. But he didn’t lack for self-belief, or for hard work with longtime coach Cliff Barnard, and it didn’t take long to prove he made the right move.
He won in his debut on the Big Easy Tour, a developmental circuit in South Africa. In his next start, he captured his first Sunshine Tour victory. He won another Sunshine Tour event right before the pandemic shut down golf, and won three times in Europe when it resumed.
Motivation has come from Gary Player, a connection rooted in sadness.
Higgo was 9 when his entire family — parents, one older brother, one younger sister — was struck by another car. His father was killed in the accident.
“I was really young. I can’t remember much,” Higgo said. “That was tough, but it changed me for the better.”
What he still remembers is a letter from Player, who wrote that his mother had died when he was about Higgo’s age.
“He’s been such a support since then and has sent me a lot of letters throughout the years, or called me at times to help,” Higgo said. “He’s been incredibly nice to me, and we’ve played a few times since then, and I feel very lucky for that.”
Player celebrated Higgo’s first European Tour win with a tweet that predicted the start of more success to follow.
Higgo is part of a burgeoning group of South Africans. He is among 11 in the field at Kiawah Island. South Africa hasn’t had more than eight players at the PGA Championship in the last five years, and there were only three in the field 20 years ago.
Higgo saw the Augusta National logo on a face covering, smiled and said, “That’s a proper mask.” At this rate, he is headed in that direction. The next stop will be the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, and most likely the British Open at Royal St. George’s.
The fields he beat in Europe were not strong, and he still has much to prove.
But it’s a start, and a strong one at that.
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