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How is Michael Thompson turning around his career? By turning up the pressure

February 19, 2019
PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 16:  Michael Thompson reads his putt on the 12th hole green during the continuation of the second round of the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club on February 16, 2019 in Pacific Palisades, California. (Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)

Don’t tell Michael Thompson that he is in the midst of playing some of the best golf of his career.

Don’t tell him that his three top-10 finishes in his last four starts, including a T-7 on Sunday at the Genesis Open, equals the number of the top-10s he collected in his previous four seasons combined.

Don’t tell him that his 330 FedEx Cup points ranks 40th on the PGA Tour, or that he already has accumulated more points than in either of his last two seasons.

But absolutely tell him that the next shot he faces, likely at next week’s Honda Classic where he won his lone tour title in 2013, has life-or-death consequences. And the shot after that. And then the shot after that, too. You see, Thompson needs that sense of urgency. He needs to feel like not only is his back against the wall, but that he’s just been given a blindfold and cigarette.

“I have found that I play better when I’m under the gun, when I absolutely have to pull off a shot,” Thompson confessed earlier this year at the Sony Open in Hawaii. “I thrive when it feels like every shot is do or die. It’s weird, but I just mentally handle golf better playing that way. Part of my mindset is creating this scenario of urgency, of having to pull off tough shots and feeling adversity, if you will.”

Thompson, 33, learned this the hard way—by confronting authentic adversity. Each of the last four seasons Thompson has missed the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and in three of those years he was relegated to the Tour Finals in which 150 players vie for 25 PGA Tour cards. (In 2017, his season was cut short by a shoulder injury, and he played in 2018 on a combination of a minor medical extension, past champion status and conditional card from finishing 148th in the FedEx Cup standings.)

He finally noticed a trend, born of a trend he despised: playing in and surviving the Finals. “I am sick and tired of going to the Finals,” he said with a pronounced exhale.


Harry How/Getty Images

Thanks to recent work with psychologist Mo Pickens, part of an overhaul to his approach to the game that includes a new swing, nutritional habits and fitness regimen, Thompson not only has been able to concentrate better but also harness a grittier mindset.

“I didn’t start to realize this until this last year, but I seem to be able to pull off shots when I feel I don’t have any other choice,” said the University of Alabama product, a former runner-up at the U.S. Amateur. “So, my approach just grew from there. I just keep doing it over and over and over again, getting it in my head that I have to play with this certain attitude. And when you put yourself under pressure like that, you learn to play with pressure.

“It’s not talked about a lot,” he added, “but I think the best players in the world approach things in this manner, that if they don’t pull off this shot or make this putt then it’s kind of the end of the world, so to speak. That’s how they get themselves to respond and perform. Anything to create that competitive drive.”

Of course, if you’re going to assume a do-or-die mentality, you better have a golf swing that enables you to “do” with some regularity. Enter swing instructor Kyle Morris of The Golf Room in Columbus, Ohio, who didn’t just give Thompson’s swing a tweak here and a tuck there since they began working together 15 months ago.

“It was more like reconstructive surgery,” said Morris, who became friends with Thompson when they competed on the Hooters Tour and Tour. “We put his left arm on his right arm and left leg on his right leg, and we put his shoulder where his head is and his head where his feet were. Somehow, we made a new golfer.”

Very nearly so. From a golfing standpoint, what Morris did change in Thompson was drastic. Best to let Morris explain:

“The shallowness of his shaft is probably 2-2½ feet different than what it was in 2017. He used to come down through his left forearm or even outside his left forearm and now he is on his right forearm. Whatever that distance is, 18 inches, 24 inches, for a tour player their swings don’t change that drastically, but he has completely overhauled his golf swing. The visual of where it was and where it is now is incredible. It doesn’t even look like the same person.”

With his revamped swing, Thompson is finding more fairways, which is kind of a big deal for a guy who ranks 141st in driving distance with an average of 287.4 yards. More pronounced was his increased percentage of greens in regulation. In 2017, Thompson ranked 140th on tour with a 63.69 average. Last year he ranked 21st by hitting 70.11 percent. That jump didn’t translate into strokes gained/approach the green, where he ranked an abysmal 181st a year ago (-.423), but this season is a different story. He currently is 12th (.854), not only a product of ball-striking, Morris said, but also course management.

“The way he is playing overall is not surprising at all given how well he is hitting it and the confidence he has,” said Morris, who also has given Thompson other tools, namely day-to-day practice drills and “feedback drills,” which give Thompson the ability to self-correct any flaws that develop. “Right now, there are no holes in his game.”

When Thompson thinks back to his 2013 victory at PGA National, where he finished at nine-under 271 and beat Geoff Ogilvy by two strokes, what stands out is the quality of shots he hit down the stretch and his inability to take from that a modicum of confidence. “I guess I didn’t learn from it all what I could have learned because here I am still trying to figure it out,” he said. “I needed to tell myself more that I am a good player.”

Good, yes, but a player with flaws he knew he needed to repair. It has taken time, but Thompson owns a swing that repeats. And now he exudes confidence.

“I’m not quite there yet, but I am starting to understand what I need to do and how I need to adjust,” said the Georgia resident, who has moved up to 142nd in the world after beginning the year 317th. “It’s been hard because the feeling doesn’t always match up to what it looks like, and I still can feel myself fighting it now and then. But knowing all I have to do is make my move and the ball is going to go roughly where I’m looking … that’s what we’re all striving for is that swing we can rely on.

“I’m figuring it out and starting to play good golf, and I’m starting to believe that I can play good golf every day,” he added. “That’s how you stay out here, that’s how you succeed and that’s how you win.”

It’s also how you avoid those times of dire urgency. Unless, of course, you're into that sort of thing.