PGA Tour rookie, Justin Thomas, had one of those rounds. He finished birdie, birdie, eagle for a 61 in the second round of the Sony Open in Hawaii on the Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, Hawaii. That got him to 12-under and T1 with Matt Kuchar and Webb Simpson. And for that he wins the “Popup Player of the Day,” awarded to those players whose unexpected performances cause us to stop and say, “That’s pretty good.”
Never heard of him? You will. He’s quietly been building a deep resume of playing chops that included taking Alabama to the national championship, playing on the Walker Cup and leaving school for the Tour life after his sophomore year. He made it through the Web.com Q-School with a 66, 65 finish in the 5th and 6th rounds and went on to have 7 top-10 finishes including a win at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship. He ended the year with his ticket to the PGA Tour with a 5th on the Priority List.
His great round began patiently but rather inauspiciously on the back nine:
Yeah, it was fun. I kind of got off to a slow start. I played well but didn’t really get much out of it. I kept giving myself looks and I had a couple good par saves, which was key, and then I finally made — played 16 well and made a birdie, and that just kind of got everything going [with birdies on 17 and 18 too]. And from there on I tried to keep hitting fairways and keep hitting greens and giving myself chances. And I think I did a really good job of putting myself in places and had a lot of good birdie chances and uphill putts, and I just took advantage of them.
Maybe the lull at the beginning of the round worked to his advantage because the humdrum allowed a distraction-free descent to the deepest he had ever gotten in the zone:
It was really crazy. It was probably the best zone and best focus I’ve ever been in. I kind of — I knew I was playing well, but I really didn’t know how many under I was for the day, and I just kind of kept playing.
It doesn’t happen very often in golf, and it’s really fun to happen. It’s probably maybe only the second time it’s ever happened to me, but I just was more focused on kind of the next shot kind of thing, and I wasn’t really too concerned about the future.
But I did happen to look up and see 12-under was leading, and I just tried to get it to — I was trying to get it to 9 or 10, just kind of get a little more reasonable, and obviously that finish [4-under on the last three holes] was just a little bit of a bonus.
This wasn’t the first time that he made that descent. He got his first taste of being deep in the zone as a junior:
As crazy as it was, I think when I was eight, I played in a junior event, and I remember I just completely blacked out, and I don’t really remember how I got to where I was, but I had shot 8‑under [as an eight-year-old!].
It turns out that at least in his case, making the young players come through the Web.com Tour to get to the PGA Tour was a good thing for Thomas:
I think last year was a very, very big and important year for me. I learned a lot, and I learned how to win fortunately, and obviously it only happened once, but I put my body and put my game in that position and I kind of knew how it felt.
Obviously it may feel a little different out here, and I’m hoping to figure out what that’s like come two days from now. But I think it’s just try to get in contention and get in those positions as many times as I can this year and just try to learn from those as often as I can.
And what he learned from that win was pretty significant. He learned patience. He was nowhere with no way and a fellow competitor gave it away. And once again, he had no idea how he stood:
I think just patience honestly because personally I had no business winning that tournament. Richard was playing really well and I got really fortunate with how we finished, and you never wish that upon somebody.
I thought it was pretty funny and ironic how I had a lot of chances of where I felt like I was right there and should have won or had a lot better chance than that and won, and then I tap in on 18, and then I just looked at Shorty, like, hey, we made a good run, and he’s like, Richard just bogeyed 17, we’re top of the lead. I’m like, I was three back last time I looked.
It was funny how that all happened, and I was very patient that day, and I think that was a big part of it.
But now the picture has some more vibrant colors in it: they’re playing threesomes on Saturday so he’ll be paired with Kuchar and Simpson. Just how hard will it be to be patient then?
Hopefully not very hard. Obviously it’s easier now to sit here and say that and then I’ll be out there tomorrow and feeling some different things. But I’m excited. It’s why I turned pro early. It’s why I am playing golf for a living. It’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.
And then he went on to make a very important point about the dread some players feel when the jangling nerves kick in, you can’t sleep and there’s that tremulous feeling in your gut. Not Thomas. He embraces it. He wants it:
If I didn’t want to be in those positions I would have never made all the decisions I’ve made, and hopefully I’ll learn something. But then again, continue to play well and keep myself in the tournament.
And that goes for being in the last group on Saturday. He wants that too. He may have learned patience, but being in that last group is something he wants now:
Yeah, but I mean, I would hopefully achieve that at some point, so I think the faster it happens, the better it’s going to be for me. Like I said, that’s why I left [college] when I did and why I’ve done everything I’ve done, to put myself — I’ve expected myself to be there as fast as I can.
Some people would maybe want to be one back as opposed to tied or second to last group as opposed to last group, but I want to be right there, and I want to be in the heat of it.
To some we might say, “Be careful what you wish for.” But in his case, based on what he’s done and what he said today, I don’t think we have to worry about him.