Justin Thomas’ unique Riviera 10th hole strategy, explained

February 16, 2024

"The strategy of the golf course is the soul of the game. The spirit of golf is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward.”

Those words were penned nearly 100 years ago by George C. Thomas in his book Golf Architecture in America, yet they may ring truer now than back then.

Thomas designed Riviera Country Club and in doing so produced one of the most discussed golf holes in the game, the short par-four 10th hole. During the Genesis Invitational this week, it measures 315 yards from the tournament tee, and intends to present players with decision to make.

Take on the awkwardly angled, tiny green with your tee shot? Or play safe to fairway and attack it with a wedge in your hand?

That decision has become easier for players in recent years. Twenty years ago in 2004, just 36 percent of tee shots hit on the 10th hole took on the green. By 2011, that number grew to 52 percent. In 2018, it was 85 percent, and two years ago in 2022, 97 percent of tee shots hit on the 10th hole were aimed at the green.

We could discuss the various strokes gained and technological reasons for this trend but the trend is clear: The play on the 10th hole is to take on the green.

However, for Justin Thomas, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

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In Thursday’s opening round, Thomas was one of just two players in the 70-man field to lay back into the wide portion of the fairway. He left himself 92 yards to the hole, hit the green and two-putted for par. Along with Alex Smalley, the other dot in the fairway in the hole image above, Thomas was one of just two players with more than 50 yards for their approach to the hole in round one.

Why would Justin Thomas devise a strategy that seemingly out of touch with the analytics. He's plenty long enough to reach the green, so why leave himself at a disadvantage?

Let's look at the stats.

  • Thomas made his debut at Riviera in 2015. That year he laid up into the fairway in each round on the 10th hole, carding three pars and a birdie. In the nine years since, including Thursday's opening round, Thomas has played the hole 33 times in competition. He laid up into the fairway 21 times. So whilst 97 percent of players are taking on the green, JT has laid back about 66 percent of the time.
  • On the 21 occasions he’s laid up, he’s carded six birdies and played the hole in four under par, averaging a score of 3.8.
  • In the 12 rounds in which he’s taken on the green, he has also carded six birdies and played the hole in four under, with an average of 3.7.
  • In the last 10 years, the hole is the second toughest par four on Tour under 350 yards. It has played to an average of 3.94 with a litany of famous disaster scores that have destroyed scorecards.
  • Thomas' career score of 8-under since his Genesis Invitational debut in 2015 ranks sixth among all players.

It stands apart from his peers, but the fact is that Justin Thomas' strategy works. It plays to his strengths to as one of the best wedge players on tour, and mitigates his right miss with an iron off the tee. When he does go for it, it's because the pin is tucked onto the front of the green, when a right miss with his driver carries less of short-sided penalty.

As Thomas himself explains:

"Personally, I've always laid up. I'll go for it to that front pin but I've laid back ever since I've been on Tour. The way I look at it is I try to make par on the hole and if I happen to make one birdie, then I beat the field for the week I would think.... I've never looked at the numbers because my miss with a 3-wood or driver is right and right's no good up there. I'm just trying to make four and maybe sprinkle in a three or two."

To my knowledge, there is no relation between George C. Thomas and Justin Thomas but if there was a family secret on how to play the elder's design, it would seem that younger Thomas may have inherited it.