The secret to Justin Thomas' success is simple: Never stop trying to go low
It takes a certain mentality, not to mention unalloyed confidence, to continually light a match to PGA Tour scorecards the way Justin Thomas is inclined to do. It wasn’t one so much taught to Thomas—though his father Mike, a PGA professional, supplied him the tools—as it has been cultivated from within.
As a youngster, Thomas would play the short course at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla., determined to ace every hole. That doesn’t sound all that unusual, but this kid was different; if he didn’t ace it, he’d promptly move on to the next hole. Go low or go “doh.”
Now, it’s dough. And it keeps rolling in.
On Sunday on Jeju Island, South Korea, Thomas won the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges, shooting a five-under-par 67 in the final round to beat Danny Lee by two strokes. The victory, which came with a $1.755 million payday, was Thomas’ 11th on the PGA Tour, adding his name to a group of players who have won at least that many times before the age of 27—Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Rory McIlroy and good friend Jordan Spieth, his roommate for the week. Thomas completed 72 holes in 20-under 268 for his second win in the event’s three-year history and his fourth victory in Asia.
Thomas, 26, appeared poised when he shot a second-round 63 on Friday at the Nine Bridges course, equaling his opening-round score from two years earlier, when nine under was good enough for victory. In August, at the BMW Championship at Medinah Country Club’s No. 3 course, Thomas obliterated the course record with a third-round 61. He won that one, too.
In six of his 11 wins, Thomas has shot at least one round of 63 or better. That includes the 2017 Sony Open in Hawaii, where he eagled the final hole at Waialae Country Club for a 59. Later that year, he tied the U.S. Open record with another 63, and set the record for the lowest round in relation to par at nine under at Erin Hills.
Brooks Koepka’s body language looks fearless and Rory McIlroy’s swing looks flawless. OK, manufacture a rivalry if you like—and before aggravating a knee injury and withdrawing Koepka, World No. 1, added fuel to one with a putdown that was factually accurate if not facile—but does anyone want to tangle with Thomas in a scorecard playoff?
Lee, a New Zealander of Korean heritage, tried his darndest. He began the final round tied with the Kentucky native and was still even until Thomas sank a 10-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole. Lee responded by bogeying the next two. They matched birdies on 18 for the final accounting.
“It is kind of bizarre knowing that I’ve won four times here,” Thomas said of his success in Asia. “I obviously like the golf courses, and I feel like they fit my game well, but it must be all the beef, maybe that’s what it is. No, I don’t know. I feel comfortable over here. I think it’s at a good time of year. But I worked really, really hard the last couple weeks to make sure I was ready for this tournament, and I was glad that it showed.”
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Going back to the BMW at Medinah, Thomas has finished first, third, fourth and first. He’s been no worse than T-12 in his last seven tournaments after recovering from a wrist injury he suffered in March at the Honda Classic that pushed him off the course for a month and forced him to miss the PGA Championship, which he won in 2017, the year he captured the FedEx Cup title and rose to No. 1 in the world for four weeks.
So, just to point out to the rivalry seekers, Thomas, who came into the week fifth in the World Rankings, has won a major in the last five years. In the last three, he has been among the top five in scoring average and top three in birdies, and he finished first in birdie average last season.
Thomas is the alpha golfer for this go-low era.
Though he has successfully converted a 54-hole lead eight of 11 times, Thomas dismissed the notion that he is a particularly good closer. Remember the mentality—hole-in-one or nothing for his younger iteration.
“I don’t think you can ever necessarily call yourself the best closer,” he demurred. “I’ve only won 11 times. I feel like once I get to 40 or 50 times and I’ve closed a lot of those, then I think that’s kind of different.”
Thomas doesn’t like to share his goals, but that sure appeared to hint at one. Another is continuing his education as a world-class player, which can only be achieved by winning.
“The biggest thing I think that I’ve gotten a lot better at is just learning, taking experiences and learning from them,” he said. “That’s what I did early in my career. There were a couple times I felt like I should have won the tournament, but I did something incorrectly or hit a wrong club or thought how I shouldn’t have, and I was able when I finished to look back at that. That’s all I’m trying to do, because I feel like if I can just improve a little bit every year, then there’s not really a ceiling that I feel like I can’t reach, I just want to try to win as many tournaments as I can.
“I feel like I’m starting to understand a lot better what I need to do, what my body needs to do on prior weeks before events, and I feel like I’m doing a good job,” he added.
With four fall victories, the most since the tour went to a split-calendar season in 2013, Thomas is entered in this week’s inaugural ZOZO Championship in Japan, so he has little time to assess his performance in South Korea—or to savor it. Not that he would be inclined to do the latter. There are more aces to chase, you know.
“In terms of the season, I definitely got off to a good start, there’s no doubt about that,” Thomas said. “So, you know, we’ll enjoy this win a little bit tonight. And then I need to get ready for next week because I have another tournament I’m trying to win next week.
“I’m ecstatic to have a trophy, another one of these in the library,” he added. “I still haven’t mastered how to write my name in Korean, I think I need to do that, but luckily I’ll have some practice, at least a year’s practice before next year.”
Numbers look the same, though, in any language. Thomas knows small ones loom large. He’s known it practically his whole life.