ROCHESTER, NY — Almost a year ago, after Justin Thomas made the biggest 54-hole comeback in PGA Championship history by chasing off Chilean Mito Pereira seven shots down and winning his second Wanamaker Trophy, he spoke about what the end of a nearly five- year drought without a major championship win could impact his career.
“When it happens, you think it’s going to happen in the next game — that’s really true,” Thomas said. “When things are going well, especially in this sport, it’s easy. The ball bounces in the right direction, the putts slide in, the guys do what they’re supposed to do on the leaderboard – things like that just happen.”
“But when things don’t go well, you have no idea if and when it’s going to happen again, and over five years I’ve definitely had a lot of those moments. I’m just really, really happy to be back here now.”
In the 11 months after Thomas defeated Will Zalatoris in a three-hole playoff to win his second PGA Championship, few things seemed to go well for him. Balls have bounced the wrong way, putts have slipped and superstars like Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy have overtaken him on the leaderboards.
Thomas, 30, joined Oak Hill Country Club this week as the defending champion. But the 15-time PGA Tour winner and former world no. It was one of the most frustrating parts of a career likely to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Thomas’ victory at the 2022 PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma is the only win in his last 45 official PGA Tour starts dating back to the 2021 WGC-Dell Match Play.
“It sucks. It’s awful,” Thomas said. “I mean, as I described it for a couple of months, I’ve never felt so far and so close at the same time. It’s very difficult to explain, and it’s also a very difficult way of trying to compete and win a golf tournament.”
Like almost everything in golf, Thomas’ problems need perspective. He has only made 19 starts since winning the 2022 PGA Championship, but many of them have not been good. He hasn’t fared well in the three majors since then, finishing 37th at the US Open, 53rd at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews and missing the cut for the first time at the Masters in April. He also finished 60th at the Players Championship, a tournament he won in April 2021.
In what may not be the most memorable moment of his crisis, Thomas missed a par putt that sent him outside the cut-line on the 18th hole at Augusta National Golf Club. He hit a 6-over-42 on the back nine after bogeying on three of the last four holes in difficult conditions. After missing the putt on the 18th, Thomas stared in disbelief at the cool, falling rain. The lasting image of that unforgettable week was Thomas standing under an umbrella, arms crossed with a disgusted expression on his face.
“It’s very frustrating,” Thomas said. “Like anything in golf, it’s easier said than done when it comes to thinking the big picture, thinking through the process, thinking that I’m going to get better at this and stuff like that. At the end of the day, after a few months or six months, whatever it is, if you’re not performing as you think you should, and not getting the results you think you should, or tournaments not like that wins as you see fit, it’s pretty easy to get mad and understand what’s going wrong.”
Thomas, whose father Mike and grandfather Paul were PGA club pros, always seems to have worn his heart on his sleeve. His real and raw emotions on the pitch make for good theater but they also get him in trouble from time to time. Thomas can be exceedingly honest at times, and his Monday press conference at Oak Hill Country Club was another example.
When a reporter asked Thomas if he felt like he was in a crisis, he replied, “Right now? No. A few weeks ago or a month ago, probably, yes.” Has Thomas turned up at a tournament this year wondering if he could win?
“Yes,” said Thomas.
“Like everything else, I preached that to myself, I’m sure I’ve told you all, or I’ve said it to younger people who ask how to learn is failure and negativity, and I feel like me.” “I’ve had a great opportunity to learn a lot about the past, whatever, six months, a couple of months, this year,” Thomas said.
Max Homa is one player who knows only too well what Thomas has been going through in recent months. In 2017, Homa lost his PGA Tour card after missing the cut in 15 of 17 tournaments. The next year, Homa had to make birdies on each of the last four holes to make the cut at a Korn Ferry Tour event. Otherwise he would have missed the finals and been relegated back to Q-School. Homa returned to the PGA Tour.
Homa, who is ranked sixth in the world, has won the PGA Tour six times since returning and has earned more than $21 million.
For the past few months, Thomas has relied on Homa for words of wisdom as he tries to find the light at the end of the tunnel.
“No one is better off here than Max Homa,” said Thomas. “There isn’t another top player in the world who has gone through the same thing as him: having a tour card, losing the tour card, having to get it back and then becoming one of the top players in the world. I’ve talked about it.” I’ve told him about it before because he thinks no one out here really knows how bad it can be.
Homa and Thomas played a practice round together at Oak Hill on Monday.
“JT’s not so good golf is way better than my not so good golf,” Homa told ESPN. “He’s so good at golf. I think sometimes you go through those little breaks and he forgets what a great golfer he is. Then you get hard on yourself like we all do. At the end of the day you just have to do it.” Go out there and trust yourself and play. It’s going to be a tough couple of weeks but he’ll have more good than bad.”
According to Homa, Thomas’ recent success says more about the difficulty of winning on the PGA Tour than the state of JT’s game.
“I’ve played golf with it quite a bit and it always looks great,” Homa said. “It’s just hard to win golf tournaments. It’s a shame people would say he’s not playing great but it’s just his standard that we’re used to. He’s better than average. But when you start winning majors, the outside expectations are too high.” The world is taking its toll on him. All great golfers face it. If cream, Scottie [and] Rory doesn’t win a major for a season, that’s like a bad year. I think that’s a shame because it wipes out the gains and other achievements you’ve had.”
Thomas hasn’t stopped crunching throughout his grueling stretch and has made some dramatic changes. After feeling his body was exhausted due to the heat at the end of the 2021/22 season, he changed his diet and went gluten-free for a year and dairy-free for six months. He said he eats steak, chicken, fish, rice and vegetables. At the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago, Thomas admitted, “I want a pizza like you can’t imagine. Like I’d do some really screwed up things for a pizza that’s just sitting around the ranch.”
Thomas’ problems were evident on the greens. He ranks 138th on tour for putting strokes won (.166) and fourth worst for avoiding three putts (33 times in 756 holes). He recently started using the AimPoint putting technique to get a better view of the greens. Developed by Mark Sweeney, it uses physics to help players identify green slope. Players are advised to feel the slope with their feet and determine the starting point with their fingers. It is used by Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley and other tour players.
“I’ve found that just like anything else in golf, some days it feels great and other days it feels bad,” Thomas said. “I’m sure it’s just like your golf swing. There’s going to be days when you can feel the inclination like that and it’s just a bang, go ahead, you do everything, and you’re going to have weeks where it’s not good.”
Thomas first used AimPoint at the Wells Fargo Championship where he had three rounds under par and finished 14th with 8 under.
“He said he was on a really good path, and I would absolutely agree,” Jim “Bones” Mackay, Thomas’ caddy, told ESPN. “I’d be surprised if anyone on tour had a better work ethic than him. He’s all about getting better at golf and he’s done all those things to get better. It looks good to me. Obviously he is.” He’s very careful about what he eats and puts time into everything. I think his golf game is really good.”
As Homa clinched his sixth PGA Tour win at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, he reflected on his unlikely path to becoming one of the best players in the world.
“It’s a beautiful game,” said Homa. “Sometimes you’re just one good swing thought away from being good again.”
Homa doesn’t think Thomas is far from winning again.
“If there was a combine for golf like there is for rookies in the NFL, he would be at the top of a lot of big boards,” Homa said. “He’s one of the best golfers I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Mackay, who helped Phil Mickelson win five major championships and worked as an on-course analyst for NBC before carrying Thomas’ duties for the past two or more seasons, agreed.
“When I was on TV, I always said that Justin has more shots in his arsenal than anyone in golf, equal or more,” Mackay said. “And I still believe that to this day. He’s incredibly good at golf. Golf will humble you sometimes.”