Justin Thomas shares valuable insight into why his 'me' game has him back in a groove
Justin Thomas lines up a putt during the second round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
PEBBLE BEACH — Golf is difficult enough without compounding the complexities of it. Justin Thomas, coming off his first winless season on the PGA Tour in seven years, has sufficiently chastised himself over the mistakes he has made, but, more importantly, has adjusted accordingly.
Like most elite players seeking incremental improvements, Thomas, 30, committed the mortal sin of too much experimentation. As a result, not only did he not win during the extended 2022-23 season, but he failed to advance to the FedEx Cup Playoffs, missing by one spot. In short, he got away from who he is as a player and therefore didn’t recognize the golfer he’d become.
“I got in, I felt, like bad habits in my swing, so just trying to get rid of those, just go back to kind of being me, playing my golf, my game,” Thomas said Friday after his five-under 67 at Pebble Beach Golf Links propelled him into the mix in the $20 million AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. “It's very easy to kind of go … you can go down wormholes in this game pretty easily and make it very, very, very difficult. I might be in some areas a little bit like that, but for the most part that's not me. I like to play golf, not golf swing and that's what I've just been trying to do, I guess.”
At nine-under 135, Thomas trailed World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, Ludvig Aberg and Thomas Detry by two strokes after 36 holes. It’s the second time in as many starts to begin the year that the two-time PGA champion is in contention, having finished T-3 at The American Express two weeks ago after playing in the final group with eventual winner, then-amateur Nick Dunlap.
It stands to reason that golf becomes more challenging when a player doesn’t trust his swing. But then there is a compounding factor to the equation. As Thomas explains, it affects your thought process, your innate strategic intelligence. And the game becomes harder still.
“For me I think it's forcing the issue,” he began. “It’s understanding if you're between clubs, maybe that's not a time to be aggressive. If you have a tee shot that maybe doesn't fit your eye, it's hitting a different club off the tee. These last now, whatever, tournament and a half has been I feel like more ‘me’ golf … relying on my short game, relying on my wedge game, playing smart, playing patient and understanding that at any point throughout a 72-hole tournament I could get hot and shoot eight, nine, 10, 11 under. I just try to stay patient and hope or let that happen.”
As an example, the 15-time tour winner, cited his thought process playing the iconic par-4 eighth hole at Pebble Beach, where he made par by eschewing an aggressive attempt to make birdie on his approach from the fairway from 181 yards with a slight helping wind off the left.
“It was a perfect 8-iron. It's a super, super tucked pin. In reality, you have probably two yards short of the hole that you need to land it,” Thomas, ranked 26th in the world, explained. “It's a pretty narrow little sliver back there. I do feel if I hit a solid 8-iron that rides the wind, it's a perfect club. But when it's a little cold like this, [if] I just barely bottom groove it or I just maybe turn it up against the wind, it might not get there. So I just hit 7-[iron] because I knew that I took short completely out of play, and I felt like I had enough control that I could gauge the distance and put it back there in a good spot, and I did. I hit a really good putt [from 19 feet]. I thought I made and just missed, but it was an easy four and you move on.”
When the game is explained in this fashion, it does seem easier. Or again, just not more difficult than it already can be. Thomas, who plays Saturday with Patrick Cantlay and Emiliano Grillo in the penultimate group, didn’t make a bogey in his 67 at Pebble Beach on Friday, and he only had one bogey Thursday in an opening 68 at Spyglass Hill.
“Obviously I feel like I have good control of my ball right now and I'm hitting it well,” he said. “I'm not forcing things. I'm just trying to make sure that I'm missing it on the correct side. … I just think that stuff adds up over time.”
Yeah, it adds up to less stress, better scores, and for Thomas, a lot more of his “me” golf.