PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Before he was even 10 years old, Justin Thomas already had moved beyond the challenge of simply hitting a golf ball and had embraced the goal of shooting low numbers.
His late grandfather, Paul, who was a club pro for more than 50 years, loved to tell the story of watching a young Justin, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, flying around the short course at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Justin wasn’t trying to play fast; he was trying to go low. The holes on the par-3 course were no more than 50-90 yards, and the kid was playing them with what can only be described as a single-minded aggressiveness. If he didn’t make a hole-in-one, he’d pick up and move on to the next hole. Eventually, over a period of time, he aced every hole.
Video: JT reflects on 2021 Players win
It's no surprise, then, that Thomas has shot more rounds of 65 or lower on the PGA Tour than anyone else over the last several years. That includes his 59 at the 2017 Sony Open in Hawaii, a record-tying 63 later that same year in the third round of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, and a 61 at the 2019 BMW Championship at Medinah Country Club.
Oh, and there also was the third-round eight-under 64 last year at TPC Sawgrass that propelled him to a one-stroke victory over Lee Westwood in the Players.
Thomas hasn’t won since then, even though the low numbers keep rolling in. (He’s posted at least one round of 65 or lower in every start but one this season.) But if any player can break the jinx that has prevented a back-to-back champion at the Players Stadium Course, it might be the guy who can channel his inner child and produce another scoring onslaught.
“They just happen,” Thomas said of his more memorable course blitzes, a decidedly different approach from his ace-seeking days as a kid. “I think the amount of rounds where I felt like I was going to do something like that going into it and it never happens is pretty … often I'll have a great warmup or it's just kind of like I'll be in that position, I'm seven or eight back on a Sunday or a Saturday, and it's like, let’s get off to a hot start or let's get it going today, [and] it doesn't work that way, or at least for me it doesn't.
“Anytime you're out of the present, it doesn't work out well,” the No. 8 player in the world added. “For me, the times that I'm staying in the moment, I'm just taking each hole, each shot for what it's worth. I enjoy that challenge of trying to go low, and the few opportunities you get to shoot a number like 59 or something like that, you don't get those chances that often, but I look forward to hopefully having some more of them.”
Funny he should mention being seven back, because Thomas trailed by seven strokes after 36 holes last year here before turning on the jets. He had a couple of 71s, marred by a double bogey each day, and then turned things around. He still is a bit surprised that he won his 14th PGA Tour title in such fashion.
“I was very fortunate to win the tournament making two doubles like that,” said the 28-year-old Kentucky native, who is the fourth player in tour history to win a major (the 2017 PGA Championship), a World Golf Championship event, a FedEx Cup title and the Players (joining Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson). “I think it's a big difference of kind of grinding and scrambling and not playing very well and just making a lot of putts, or kind of stealing one here or there and barely making the cut and being seven back versus I was playing solid, I had just a couple bad holes. But I really felt like I was playing a lot better than that, than being seven back, if that makes sense.”
So little in golf tends to make sense, frankly. And playing well often doesn’t translate into victory. Thomas has finished no worse than 20th in his six official starts this season—with three of those in the top five. He seems well-poised to successfully defend this week.
And mentally, he seems in a good place to go after it. Because that’s exactly what he is trying to not do. Stay with us here. Thomas is the defending champion, but he is not trying to defend anything, he said, when he tees it up Thursday at 12:56 p.m. EST alongside Rory McIlroy and Collin Morikawa.
He assumed this attitude after talking with a coach. No, not his father Mike, who is his swing instructor. Thomas got some pointers on how winners are supposed to think from someone who has won quite a bit—University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
Saban joined Thomas, who was an All-American golfer at Alabama, for a few holes at TPC Sawgrass last month during the Players media day. The message was essentially that Roll Tide is not all about winning but also enjoying what you already have won.
"When you win a championship, they say you have to defend," Saban told reporters. “You don't have to defend. No one can take away what you did last year. Just go have fun and do it again. There's no such thing as defending a title, in my opinion. If they took it away from you, it would be different. But you're always going to be a Players champion, and you're always going to have that special place in the locker room, so just have fun and win it again.”
The message resonated quite a bit with Thomas.
“I don't have to defend anything. I'm not defending this title. The PGA Tour isn't going to come to my living room and take my Players Championship trophy from 2021 from me after this week. That's mine forever,” he said. “I don't have to give anything back, and my name's always going to be on that trophy.
“I'm just going to go try to win it again. That's all I'm going to try to do.”
What he won’t try to do is shoot a low number. He’ll just let that happen.
Just don’t be surprised if it does.