With a day to go before the Waste Management Phoenix Open starts the players have a chance at a realistic tuneup by playing in the Wednesday pro-am. They’ve changed the format so that each group is assigned two pros; one pro plays the front nine and the second the back. This allows the pros to have a half day to just work on the range.
Justin’s interview began with the Tour-wide, ubiquitous, “How do you like us?”
Q. This is the strongest field this event has had in over a decade. How has the perception or the feel of this event changed even since you first started coming here a few years ago?
JUSTIN THOMAS: The field?
Q. The feel, like the perception among the players, perhaps.
JUSTIN THOMAS: I’m not really sure. I know it’s always been a really good field, so that part hasn’t changed too much. At least the feel for me when I was when I first got here it was a little overwhelming because no one knew or cared who I was and it’s finally getting to the point where at least I’m getting some people on my side when I come to this event. It’s awesome. It’s so, at least for me it’s misunderstood, a lot of people are, oh, like you got to go play Phoenix, just because it’s a party and so much fun and this and that. But I really do like this golf course and that’s why I come play. I would never come play a tournament just because it’s fun. It’s the reason I don’t play China or I haven’t played in the past is because I don’t, I just don’t, that course does not fit my eye and I truly don’t feel like I can win there. So it’s like it’s hard for me to go sign up for a golf tournament if I don’t feel like I can win it. I like the place and I think its word’s kind of spreading and once people come here and kind of feel the somewhat of a Major type feel with some of the roars and the crowds, especially on some of those holes where you get a lot of people, but it’s just an enjoyable tournament, the Thunderbirds do an unbelievable job.
Which turned to a question about taking time off. After he finished the President’s Cup, he played the back-to-back Tour events in Kuala Lumpur and Korea, then Tiger’s Bahamas tournament six weeks later and the season opening Tournament of Champions in Maui six weeks after that.
Q. You’re so competitive, is it hard to let yourself play your way into a season when it’s so early and not get too caught up in the results?
JUSTIN THOMAS: Not really, just because it’s still golf, it doesn’t really matter the time of season. The only time of season I feel like that is really, I guess you could say, stressful would be the playoffs, just because it’s pretty obvious where you are and what you need to do to accomplish what you want to accomplish. But, yeah, I want to play well this time of year like everybody else does, but in reality it’s just another tournament. Whether I win this week or win my first event over in Asia or I win my last event, the whatever, at the end of the year, a win is a win and that’s what I want to do is play well and give myself a chance to win as many times as I can, no matter what time of the season it is.
Q. How would you assess your game right here?
JUSTIN THOMAS: I feel pretty good. I had two weeks off so I got some rest and I was fresh or I am fresh, but I had a fun little weekend last, two weekends ago, just to enjoy myself a little bit and take some time away. Then last week I really got at it and have been grinding hard. Body feels great, I’m in really good shape and been practicing hard, so my game feels good, it’s just a matter of execution at this point.
And then I pursued a line of questioning that got into the details of taking time off.
Bill Rand: When you take time off do you put the clubs away or do you still hit balls once in a while?
JUSTIN THOMAS: Well like I did this past two weeks, the first week I don’t really do much. I hadn’t been home for awhile so just do a lot of stuff around the house. The only thing I’ll continue to do is work out. Especially when I’m home is when I really, really try to get after it and make sure I’m going to do a lot more in an off week than I would here, just to make sure I’m staying in shape.
Bill Rand: And given the level that you’re at, what’s the longest that you would take off and still be able to get back?
JUSTIN THOMAS: I mean if we had an off season and I had three months I would have no problem taking a month off. I used to not be able to go a couple days or a week, but I would love to just take a month of vacationing with some friends and do nothing for a good three or four weeks or a month. But unfortunately that’s not really an option anymore.
Bill Rand. So then how long would it take you to get back to where you are now?
JUSTIN THOMAS: It takes a good week’s practice or a good, it takes a good four or five days of productive practice. I’ve gotten a lot better. I used to, I take two, three days off and I would come back and I was lost, but now I’ve gotten better that I need that time off. Even if I have one week off I won’t really do much until probably Thursday or Friday. Just because rest I’m starting to learn is more important than anything. I can come to a tournament and my game could be sharp but if I’m mentally fatigued and I’m not making the right decisions out there I’m not going to play well. Whereas, if I’m fresh, I’m mentally I’m there, I can go on plot my way around the course, I can get it around and hopefully have a chance to win.
Bill Rand: So it’s amazing at your level that a couple days off you could feel lost. Could you describe what that feels like to you?
JUSTIN THOMAS: I don’t as much anymore. I’m a lot better now. But it’s just the touch, it’s around the greens. You get that 50, 40, 50-yard shot and you look like or I look like a five or six handicap. So that’s where you get the “feels” back and you’re kind of hitting your windows, you’re hitting the ball flights you want and you’re able to hit it low, hit it high, spin control, stuff like that. So it’s just, it takes a day or two just kind of getting the reps in and hitting different shots and going out and playing some and then it’s all back.
Bill Rand: But not so much the swing, more the short game?
JUSTIN THOMAS: No, well more so the short game than the swing, but when I take time off, my swing always gets back to the same thing, so I kind of have to start over if I take time off.
And then another reporter asked a follow-up question that opened the door to an expansive answer about the grit of playing on the PGA Tour. The nice thing about Thomas’ answer is that it was nowhere near a complaint, it was just what’s so; a privileged peek behind the curtain of their luminous celebrity.
Q. What is it about playing professional golf that you used to couldn’t go a day or two and now you feel like you want a month off?
JUSTIN THOMAS: It’s a grind. It’s exhausting. Not exhausting in a bad way, it’s mentally exhausting is what it is. It’s just playing 24, 25, 26 events a year when that’s a Monday to Sunday type thing and then you’ll get roughly probably I would say a week to two weeks in terms of traveling for any media obligations or sponsor days or stuff like that. And then you get probably a couple events you have to go early or stay late, you have friends’ pro-ams, stuff like that and then you’ll take some vacation time, you have your holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas with your family. In reality you’re looking at about five to seven weeks at home in a year.
So it’s pretty wild when you think of it like that. That you’re just able to do nothing. A lot of the weeks, that’s what I don’t think some people, obviously y’all understand, but a lot of people don’t understand is like, say I’m playing this week, I have next week off. They’re like, oh, you have an off week. Well, not really I have like three days off and then I have to start getting ready for L.A. because everybody else is and if I take the entire week off then I’m going to go to L.A. and play bad. So it’s just a lot.
It’s great, I’m not complaining by any means, it’s just I’ve learned that, like I said, that taking the time off is huge for me and just getting away from it and getting my mind off of it, that way I want to come back versus going out practicing because I feel like I have to isn’t productive for me. So I just think when you’re in college you play four, five times in the fall, five, six, seven times in the spring, three-day events, you go there the day before, you leave that day, it’s a little different now than a Monday to Sunday type thing.
A rude awakening that he has obviously adapted to just fine. The good ones do.