At this year’s PGA Championship, Justin Thomas is trying something new
Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior WriterMay 17, 2023, 08:15 AM ET
- Senior college football writer
- Author of seven books on college football
- Graduate of the University of Georgia
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Nearly a year ago, after Justin Thomas matched the largest 54-hole comeback in PGA Championship history by chasing down Chile’s Mito Pereira from 7 shots back to win his second Wanamaker Trophy, he talked about what ending a nearly five-year drought without a major championship victory might mean to his career.
“When it happens you think it’s going to happen the next time you play — you really do,” Thomas said. “When things are going well, especially in this sport, it’s easy. The ball bounces the right way, the putts slip in, guys do what you need them to do in the leaderboard — stuff just happens.
“But when it’s not going well, you have no idea if and when it’s going to happen again, and over five years I’ve definitely had a lot of those moments. I’m just very, very glad to be back here now.”
In the 11 months after Thomas defeated Will Zalatoris in a three-hole playoff to win the PGA Championship for a second time, few things have seemed to go his way. Balls have bounced the wrong way, putts have slipped out and superstars like Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy have passed him on leaderboards.
Thomas, 30, arrived at Oak Hill Country Club this week as the defending champion. But the 15-time PGA Tour winner and former world No. 1 golfer admitted on Monday that he has played in a few tournaments lately without believing he could win. It has been one of the most frustrating stretches of what is likely a hall of fame career.
Thomas’ victory at the 2022 PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the only time he has won in his past 45 official PGA Tour starts dating back to the 2021 WGC-Dell Match Play.
“It sucks. It’s terrible,” Thomas said. “I mean, how I described it for a couple months is I’ve never felt so far and so close at the same time. That’s a very hard thing to explain, and it’s also a very hard way to try to compete and win a golf tournament.”
Like almost anything in golf, Thomas’ struggles need perspective. He has made only 19 starts since winning the 2022 PGA Championship, but many of them haven’t been good. He didn’t perform well in the three majors since then, tying for 37th at the U.S. Open, for 53rd at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews and missing the cut for the first time at the Masters in April. He also tied for 60th at the Players Championship, a tournament he won in April 2021.
In what might be the most not-so-memorable moment of his slump, Thomas missed a par putt on the 18th hole at Augusta National Golf Club that put him outside the cut line. He carded a 6-over 42 on the back nine, after posting bogeys on three of the last four holes in difficult conditions. After missing the putt on the 18th, Thomas looked up at the chilly, falling rain in disbelief. The lasting image of the forgettable week was Thomas standing under an umbrella, his arms crossed with a look of disgust.
“It’s very frustrating,” Thomas said. “Like anything in golf, it’s easier said than done in terms of thinking big picture, thinking process, thinking I’m going to be better off for this and whatnot. At the end of the day, after a couple of months or six months, whatever it is, where you’re not performing as well as you feel like you should and not having the finishes you feel like you should or not winning tournaments like you feel like you should, it’s pretty easy to get pissed off and understand what’s going wrong.”
Thomas, whose father, Mike, and grandfather, Paul, were PGA club professionals, has seemingly always worn his heart on his sleeve. His genuine and raw emotions on the course make for good theater, but they’ve also gotten him in hot water from time to time. Thomas can sometimes be honest to a fault, and his news conference at Oak Hill Country Club on Monday was another example.
When a reporter asked Thomas if he felt like he was in a slump, he said, “Right now? No. A couple of weeks ago or a month ago, probably, yeah.” Did Thomas show up at a tournament this year wondering whether he could win?
“Yeah,” Thomas said.
“Like anything, I’ve preached this to myself, I’m sure I’ve said it to y’all or I’ve said it to younger guys that ask, how you learn is failure and negatives, and I feel like I’ve had a great opportunity for a lot of learning the past, whatever, six months, couple months, this year,” Thomas said.
Max Homa is one player who knows all too well what Thomas has endured over the past several months. In 2017, Homa lost his PGA Tour card by missing the cut in 15 of 17 tournaments. The next year, Homa had to make birdies on each of the final four holes to make the cut in a Korn Ferry Tour event. If he didn’t, he would have missed the finals and been relegated back to Q-school. Homa made his way back to the PGA Tour.
Homa, who is ranked sixth in the world, has won six times on the PGA Tour and earned more than $21 million since his return.
In the past few months, Thomas has leaned on Homa for words of wisdom while trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Nobody is in a better place than Max Homa out here,” Thomas said. “There’s no other top player in the world who’s gone through what he’s gone through in terms of having a tour card, losing your tour card, having to earn it back and then becoming one of the top players in the world. I’ve talked to him about it before because he’s like, nobody out here really knows how bad it can be.”
Homa and Thomas played a practice round together at Oak Hill on Monday.
“JT’s not-so-good golf is a lot better than my not-so-good golf,” Homa told ESPN. “He’s so good at golf. I think sometimes you go through these little lulls, and he forgot how great of a golfer he is. Then you get hard on yourself like we all do. At the end of the day, you just have to go out there and trust yourself and play. There’s going to be some tough weeks, but he’s going to have more good ones than bad ones.”
Homa says Thomas’ recent stretch says more about the difficulty of winning on the PGA Tour than it does about the state of JT’s game.
“I’ve played a decent amount of golf with him and it always looks great,” Homa said. “It’s just hard to win golf tournaments. It’s a bummer that people would say he’s not playing great, but it’s just his standard that we’re used to. It’s better than average. But when you start winning majors, the expectation from the outside world takes a toll on him. All great golfers face that. If Rahm, Scottie [and] Rory don’t win a major for a season, it’s like a down year. I think that’s a shame because it takes away the gains and other success that you have.”
Thomas hasn’t stopped grinding during his grueling stretch and has made some dramatic changes. After feeling that his body wore down at the end of the 2021-22 season in hot conditions, he changed his diet to eat gluten-free for one year and dairy-free for six months. He said he’s consuming steak, chicken, fish, rice and vegetables. At the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago, Thomas admitted, “I want a pizza like you cannot imagine. Like I would do some really messed-up things for a pizza just doused in ranch.”
Thomas’ struggles have been evident on the greens. He ranks 138th on tour in strokes gained: putting (0.166) and is fourth worst in three-putt avoidance (33 times in 756 holes). He recently started using the AimPoint putting technique to help him read greens better. Developed by Mark Sweeney, it uses physics to help players read the slope of greens. Players are encouraged to use their feet to feel the slope and fingers to determine the starting point. It is used by Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley and other tour players.
“I’ve come to find, just like anything in your golf game, it feels great some days and it feels bad others,” Thomas said. “I’m sure it’s just like your golf swing. You’re going to have days where you can feel the slope like this and it’s just bang, go, you’re making everything, and you’re going to have weeks where it’s not great.”
Thomas used AimPoint for the first time at the Wells Fargo Championship, where he had three rounds under par and tied for 14th at 8 under.
“He said he’s on a really good trajectory, and I would absolutely agree with that,” Jim “Bones” Mackay, Thomas’ caddie, told ESPN. “I’d be surprised if anybody on tour has a better work ethic than he does. He is about getting better at golf, and he has done all these things to get better. To me, it is showing up nicely. Obviously, he’s very careful with what he eats and he puts time into everything. I think that his golf game is in a really good place.”
When Homa picked up his sixth PGA Tour victory at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, he reflected on his unlikely journey to becoming one of the best players in the world.
“It’s a beautiful game,” Homa said. “Sometimes you’re just one good swing thought from being good again.”
Homa doesn’t believe Thomas is too far away from winning again.
“If there was a combine for golf, like there is for rookies in the NFL, he would be at the top of a lot of big boards,” Homa said. “He’s one of the best golfers I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Mackay, who helped Phil Mickelson win five major championships and worked as an on-course analyst for NBC before carrying Thomas’ bag the past two-plus seasons, agreed.
“I used to say when I was doing TV that Justin has more in his arsenal of shots than anybody in golf, as much or more,” Mackay said. “And I still believe that to this day. He is incredibly good at golf. Golf will humble you at times.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.