I’ve been impressed with Justin Thomas ever since I first mentioned his name here as the winner of the Popup Player of the Day after a second round 61 in this year’s Sony Open in Hawaii to tie for the lead. He finished T6.
I didn’t notice his T4 finish in early November at the Sanderson Farms Championship because his first round 71 didn’t impress; the first round leaders shot 65, three 67s and nine 68s. But his stretch run of 68, 69, 67 delivered him from nowhere and got the job done.
And then last week at the Humana Challenge he came up just short when he hit his 2-iron layup on the 16th hole into a fairway bunker 275 yards away…and then dumped the approach shot into the canal fronting the green for a double. He lost to Bill Haas by two.
He was gracious enough Wednesday to give me some time after his range practice for a brief interview, “Justin Thomas: Exclusive golf mastery process interview.” He’s a very thoughtful, forthcoming young man with a clear sense of his talent and who throws off the vibe that the tournaments just can’t come fast enough to suit him. For a Tour rookie, he lacks no confidence, but he is far from cocky.
When the tee sheet for Thursday’s first round of this week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open at the TPC of Scottsdale came out, his group was last off the first tee in the afternoon. It would have been nice to watch him play, but I prefer watching all 18 holes and I couldn’t get it all in. Besides, I’d just interviewed the guy.
There wasn’t enough daylight to finish, so when the horn blew, he was 3-under with a 7-foot par putt on 17. He chose to wait until the next morning to make it because of sage advice once from a fellow competitor:
Because I had perfect greens this morning, no spike marks. I could see the line. I guess that’s why. I made that mistake before. I remember playing as an amateur one time, I had same thing, like a 10-footer for par, and, you know, just being young and stupid I putted it, and then one of the guys came up to me — I think it was Jeff Klauk — he’s like, ‘By the way, don’t ever putt that again. You have perfect greens tomorrow morning. Don’t putt that.’
He ended up with a birdie on 18 to finish his first day round at 4-under. I did notice that. And a couple of hours later I also noted that he was 4-under on the day through his front nine. That 8-under total but him one shot behind the leader, Ryan Palmer, until Palmer soon dropped a shot and they were tied.
So I thought there would be no better group to follow at that point than Thomas’ which also included Tony Finau, the ex-Big Breaker who’s also a rookie out of the Web.com Tour this year and Cory Renfrew from Canada. And they were just finishing the front nine, so I could catch them on the 1st tee if I hurried.
The only problem was that it was a dreary day with intermittent mist and showers that kept turning into light rain. The clouds were so low that the corporate jets landing at Scottsdale airport were coming down to 500 feet before they were able to join the downwind leg for a visual landing into the light northeast wind. Not very often that you see jets maneuvering like that at that altitude. Normally they are stabilized on long final approaches. It was one after another.
Later I asked Thomas what was going through his mind when he got it to 4-under in such unpleasant conditions:
I was just trying to keep it going. I mean, I realized it was a really good round in those conditions. I hit some good putts or had good chances on 16 and 18 that I just let slide, but any time obviously you shoot 4-under on nine holes you can’t be too upset.
I was just trying to stick to my game plan. I was hitting all the fairways, and I think that’s why I was playing as well as I was and getting it in good spots on the green. I was just trying to keep that game plan that I had going, but it got tough out there. It was kind of hard to keep it going.
Wrapped up in my rain gear, I was treated to a pretty amazing display of foul weather golf by all three players. But first they had to get by Thomas’ bogey on the first hole. He pushed his 3-wood into the lush wet rough and couldn’t get the ball to the green. What was he thinking then?
Yeah, I was pretty bummed just because I felt it was a good birdie opportunity, but I missed the fairway and I got it out of position. And I hit a good putt. Just didn’t hit it hard enough.
A day like today, I realize you’re probably going to make at least one bogey. Obviously it would have been nice not to make one. But it happens and I just tried to stay patient and keep trying to hit fairways after that.
Aside from that, managing to get in and out of rain gear as needed — at one point Finau actually played in just a golf shirt — they hit most of the fairways with well shaped, towering tee shots as if the sun was shining and birds were singing. It was one of the best displays of consistency I had seen in those conditions. I was literally marveling with the passing of each tee shot.
When I interviewed Thomas on Wednesday, he told me that he uses his Trackman to determine how far his drives go in varying weather conditions. So one of the first questions I asked him after he finished in the lead at 7-under was how much shorter today’s distances compared to Wednesday’s benchmark:
Oh, man. I just know like perfect example on 6, there is a bunker, it’s about 295 to it and maybe like 303 to carry it, and there is another bunker after that that’s probably 320 to it, and I like two-hopped it in the bunker, 320 bunker yesterday. Today I hit a good drive and I was about 20 yards short of that 290 bunker. I had 97 yards in yesterday and I had [plays like] 190 in today [factoring in the wet, cold and humidity].
And he told us how his strategy changed for those conditions:
Besides hitting about four more clubs than I would have liked on the greens, it was not too much. I mean, there really isn’t too much you can do. It was just really hard because it would rain and the greens would get kind of skippy and they’d skid, and they would stop a little bit and you’d play for the skid and it would land soft. It was hard to judge that.
The hardest part was if you missed the fairway, you couldn’t — even if you had a good lie it was so thick that it was wet. It would go 75% of the distance you wanted. But fortunately, that would mean you’re short of the greens. That happened to me a couple of times. I had some easy chips. It was more of a grind trying to find the easiest way to make par than anything.
Not only is patience a great golf virtue, so is his attitude of acceptance. Accepting things the way they are and then adapting your plans to reality on the ground. It does no good to engage in petulant, self-pity. ‘You wanted a still, sunny day and instead you got this. So deal with it and find a way.’
Scottsdale’s Martin Laird out of Scotland has the lead at 10-under. He’s followed by a friend of Thomas’, Daniel Berger at 8-under and Thomas at 7-under. Tee times aren’t out yet because there are still rounds that need to be finished Saturday morning due to darkness, but the three of them should be paired in the last group.
It will certainly be entertaining.