Justin Thomas: Coming of age

I was unable to get this post out last night on my normal schedule, but Justin Thomas is such a compelling story I decided to put out a rare daytime post.

Thomas is in the final group today at the Humana Challenge along with Bill Haas and the equally compelling story of double heart transplant survivor, Erik Compton. Thomas shot 68, 63, 68 to get there, the latter in blustery conditions.

After missing his first two cuts in this his rookie year, he’s gone on to finish T4 in the Sanderson Farms Championship in Jackson, Mississippi, T23 in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Mexico and just last week, T6 at the Sony Open in Hawaii.

At 5′ 10″ and 145 pounds, he’s physically small, but he has somehow been gifted with an acute understanding of the golf swing: he hits it a ton averaging over 300 yards off the tee.

Talking about Saturday’s playing conditions, he speaks with all the playing confidence of a Tour veteran: 

It was tougher, definitely harder out there today.  It was windy and you had to think a little bit more and had to hit great shots and work them.  So I felt like I did that well.  I played the last eight holes really well, which is good to build on for tomorrow.  I hit some great putts out there that I felt like I made that just missed.  So, just got to hopefully keep rolling that putter well and start driving it a lot better and see what happens.

He may have finished at T6 last week, but he learned some good lessons in the process:

Yeah, I think patience.  I really played pretty poorly on the weekend last week and I managed my game very well, I felt like, for how poorly I played. And I think that the me from last year or maybe two years or maybe more so a year and a half, two years ago, would have shot some pretty high numbers on the weekend, as opposed to two even pars.

So it’s just, some days you’re not going to have it and it’s just a matter it of what you make of it, especially on courses like this, you never know when you’re going to reel off seven birdies in a row, so you just need to stay patient and just take one shot at a time.

One of the distractions of rookies on the Tour is figuring out the logistics. I remember my first trip as a Monday qualifier driving up the Atlanta highway to Alpharetta expecting my hotel to be visible from the road. Why? I have no idea. It just seemed logical at the time: highway/hotel. Same with hunting out restaurants seven nights a week; you get a sense of zoning patterns as a way to find a place to eat (a dated skill in a Google world). But Thomas has had a way to slip into the process fairly painlessly and he does have some experience from his prolific amateur days:

I’ve been fortunate where I got some sponsor exceptions and I’ve also been fortunate to where we have some friends or some family that have houses around the places.  Like this week I’m staying with a buddy of mine who is the same age I am, at Texas, and they have a house out here, so they let us stay the last couple years.

It’s different, but at the same time I feel like I’ve been traveling my whole life playing golf and I’m pretty accustomed to it and obviously it’s a little different traveling for seven days than four or five days like junior and amateur golf, but it’s still traveling and I love golf and when you love it and you enjoy it, I don’t think it ever gets too tiring, at least for me.

And he’s a smart player too. Everybody knows that you have to keep making birdies in Palm Springs; the courses are too short and too well manicured to just slop it around. But when mitigating circumstances came up like the winds, he was mature enough as a player to play with a little more reserve:

I felt like I would probably need to get it to 20 or 21 to get in the final group [on Sunday].  When I got out here and saw the wind, I told my caddie, Shorty, I felt like on 11, if we got to 17 or 18, we would have a chance to be in the final group.  So once I got out there, I understood it was going to be a little harder and I think anybody would say it’s definitely a lot more difficult when you have 10 to 15, 20 gusting winds as opposed to nothing.

And his recent spate of good play, it turns out, is no accident. He’s much more confident now because he was actually smart enough to take a look back to see if he was doing all that he could to get better:

I think I’m just a lot more confident.  I come into these events with a different mind frame than I did when I maybe had sponsor exemptions last year.

My preparation’s a lot better.  I was pretty poor at using my off weeks last year.  I think I missed four cuts last year and every single one of them came after an off week.  I looked at that and realized why and I think moving to Jupiter was huge for me.  The facilities that we have at the Bear’s Club, or I have, if you use them properly it’s pretty hard I feel like not to get better and it’s really been great for me down there.  Especially not being a Bermuda kid growing up in Louisville Kentucky, it’s big for me, because that’s definitely the weakest grass for me.

So, I just, I think I have a lot of confidence and I’ve been managing my game well, I’ve been patient and I’ve just tried to enjoy it more than anything.

What was it about those weeks off? Was he just not getting the work done?

Yeah, I think I was being a 21 year old [he’ll be 22 in April] and I wasn’t getting enough rest and I was going to see my friends, which that’s understandable, I mean it doesn’t matter what I do, I’m always going to miss my friends at home and I’m going to want to see them, but I just wasn’t preparing well enough.  I wasn’t getting enough sleep.  I wasn’t eating right.  I think that it just wore on me.

I didn’t think it would be a big deal, those Monday, Tuesday days, when you’re tired on Monday and Tuesday you’re preparation is not as good.  You don’t see the [details of the] course, maybe the things that you should.  That obviously wasn’t too — or didn’t work too well for me, but I’ve learned and I guess I’ve grown up a little bit in that aspect.

The other nice thing about playing college golf these days is that it prepares you so much better for great golf and you come up to the Tour with a circle of friends from your college days. You’re not just thrown into the pit with the Tour’s superstars:

It helps a lot.  Especially when you look at it now.  You take three, four years ago, I was playing against, especially amateur golf as well as just as much as college golf, but you get the right college field, and a tournament like they had in Vegas or something like that, Oklahoma State’s playing and Alabama’s playing, Texas playing, Georgia playing, all those teams, and I was playing against Harris [English] and Patrick Reed, Jordan [Spieth[, Russell [Henley]. I was playing against all those guys and it’s just really cool now being out here and being on the PGA TOUR and there’s guys that I’ve been playing against and playing with for awhile.

And it definitely makes the transition for me from college to Web.com to PGA Tour a lot easier, knowing that I have those friends out here.

The other thing about Thomas is that he’s alert and willing to take coaching. These were traits that took him out of his malaise too:

I think maybe seeing some other players do really well or beat me.  I’m a very competitive person and I truly believe, I mean everything I do, I want to be the best in and that’s kind of why I choose to do it.  I just had — the middle of the summer I didn’t really play very well last year although you can play well on the Web.com and not make some putts and finish 30th pretty fast.  I just felt like I wasn’t playing as well or as I should have.

I don’t know, it’s just I had some talks with some people and I think that I had a talk with somebody especially in Sea Island this past year after the McGladrey and we just, he talked to me a little bit and told me that it’s a job and although it’s fun and obviously it’s a blast to have the best job in the world, you know it’s still at that you need to work for it and there’s 100 or however many people in the field every week that want to beat you, so you need to work at it.

But he was also conscious enough to be pretty self-directed too:

I mean it was just me a little bit too, just because I was sick of seeing myself not play very well and I mean it’s not like I was out partying all the time, it’s not like ‑‑ I feel like I’m making myself sound terrible.

It just was all the little things.  Like, when I’m at home, I think I’m starting to realize how much, what eating better is, what on an off week does for you.  Making sure that you get the right amount of sleep and sleeping in a good place, not on a couch that you’re not going to get any sleep at all.  It’s just little things like that, but it’s the part of it and a part of being 21, I guess, and I love seeing my friends and going home and having fun with them sometimes.

Back when he was 16 years old, he won an amateur tournament and that got him a sponsor exemption in the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro.

I did.  I just was completely unconscious the first day and shot 5‑under.  I still don’t know how I did it.  I was there and after I missed the modified cut or whatever, I was so mad and all this.  I think the last couple years I was sitting there and thinking back like what was I doing shooting 5‑under at 16 in a Tour event?

It’s funny to sit back and think about, but playing with those guys, I mean it really got me motivated.  Going in the player dining and all the food they get.  Making us omelets and I’m like 16 getting a candy and all this ice cream and playing a practice round with some guys.  It was just the coolest experience ever.

It definitely got me motivated.  I remember telling my parents and myself, I want to get out here as fast as I can and I want to play out here for a long time.

So far, so good. And today is a chance to make another statement.

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