On an old-school venue, Justin Thomas seeks old-time success
May 15, 2023
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Today's version of Justin Thomas, two-time PGA Championship winner, would offer some sage advice for a younger version of himself, the kid who was fighting and scratching his way to the top of the golf mountain a decade ago. As in, Relax, kid. In real time, those bad Sunday rounds may feel as if they carry the weight and magnitude of life and death ... but in hindsight, they don't. Not even close.
"Everything is not as big a deal as you think it is," said Thomas on Monday at tree-lined Oak Hill Country Club, where he will chase a third PGA title beginning on Thursday. "I think everything always seems like the end of the world, or you're playing bad (and) that round was so important, you had to play well there.
"I feel like if I would have learned things a little bit sooner in terms of my bad rounds, my bad weeks, I feel like I would have been better off earlier. But it's just hard when you're 20, 21, 22 years old to not think playing bad on a Sunday isn't the end of the world."
At 30, Thomas already has accomplished so much. He has 15 PGA Tour victories, among them those two PGAs, is nearing $54 million in career earnings, and has become a fixture on those year-end national teams that represent the U.S. in Ryder and Presidents cups. But he finds himself in a bit of a cool spell heading into Oak Hill this week. He has slid to 13th in the Official World Golf Ranking, having not won a tournament since last year's PGA at Southern Hills in Tulsa, where he stormed from behind, shooting 67 to win in a playoff late Sunday.
Likewise in 2021, there was one victory (a big one, The PLAYERS) to show for all of Thomas' hard work. He struggles at times to adeptly describe the current state of his game. Simultaneously, he can feel so close to winning again, and yet miles from where he wants to be with his game.
Amid the posh green carpets of grass that frame the game of golf, there is a great swath of gray that divides the black and white. Playing well does not always mean winning, though a player of Thomas's caliber will often, by his nature, view it that way.
"In reality," Thomas said, "it's not how you should, or how all of us, base success and failure. But at the end of the day, we're all trying to win the golf tournament."
Thomas is getting his first look at Oak Hill this week, a traditional, brawny venue that last played host to a PGA Championship in 2013 (Jason Dufner). Oak Hill removed a lot of trees since the top players last were here, but plenty remain, leaving golfers with challenging recovery shots when they stray off the fairways.
Shaun Micheel, PGA champion at Oak Hill 20 years ago (on his very first start at the PGA), said this about the challenge that lies ahead: "If you've not been here, and I don't know what Justin said about the course (he liked it), I think that when a player steps on the property for the first time and they walk around and see this place, they might literally say that it might be the best course that they've ever played. It's hard.
"Now, asking them that on Thursday (first round), they may not say the same. ... It's fantastic, and it's what a major championship should be."
Last May, Thomas was bruised by a scrappy, third-round 74 in tough conditions at Southern Hills that dropped him five shots off the lead of Mito Pereira of Chile. It was cold in Tulsa, and a younger Thomas might have slammed his clubs into the trunk and called it a day. The wiser version made sure to stick around with his father/coach, Mike Thomas, and caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, and hit balls long enough to work out most of his anger, creating a fresh mental reset for his final round. On Sunday, he birdied four of his last 10 holes in regulation, and then added two more in a three-hole playoff to prevail over Will Zalatoris.
"I wasn't necessarily going to go have an unbelievable practice session must with the conditions (rainy) and weather and everything," Thomas said. "It was more just like I couldn't leave the property or the golf course in that frame of mind. It's not healthy."
A little more than 24 hours later, Thomas was leaving the property with his second Wanamaker Trophy for winning the PGA. At Oak Hill this week, it will take a supreme effort to replicate such a scene.