TULSA, Oklahoma — With all due respect to the week-to-week events on the PGA Tour, Justin Thomas is not grinding away on the range and in the gym because he is dreaming of winning tournaments like the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open or the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit. As a former world No. 1 and a major winner, he’s ascended to the ranks of the big game hunters, manipulating his schedule and preparations, so he peaks during events like the Masters.
This is why an opening-round 76 must have felt like a punch in the gut six weeks at Augusta National. As the cliche goes, you can’t win the tournament on Thursday, but you can lose it, and Thomas lost his chance at winning the green jacket with that 4-over par performance.
But here’s the thing about great athletes, they learn from mistakes, take away any positives they can find and come back, which is precisely what Thomas is looking to do this week at the PGA Championship Southern Hills.
“I think pretty far back is an understatement after the first day,” Thomas said Tuesday in Tulsa, thinking back to the Masters. “It just was one of those kind of freak days where I just woke up not really into it. I just had a very hard time getting focused. But at the same time, you know, I’ve got to be better at finding a way to get in that zone and get in that focus.”
Breaking a habit, Thomas opted to play the week before a major, finishing tied for fifth at the birdie-fest AT&T Byron Nelson after shooting 68-66-64-67. He doesn’t know if the move is going to pay off or not (“I’ll let you know Sunday”), but he is not simply repeating the same old thing and hoping for a different outcoming. At age 29, he’s still young enough to experiment.
Fifteen years ago, when Thomas’s close friend, Tiger Woods, won the PGA Championship here, the winning score was 8 under, and only five players finished the tournament under par. This week, conditions are expected to get harder and faster as the tournament rolls on, which could play into Thomas’s hands. As the chart below reveals, he has no weaknesses.
“ first time I played competitively with Tiger, I just asked him ‘We’ve played a lot of fun golf together but that was the first competitive round. What you do you see?’” Thomas recalled. “He said, ‘You don’t move the ball enough.’ For me, it was like, he’s pretty good. He said that. I should probably try it.”
Now, Thomas can draw and fade the ball at will, which he said will be critical.
“If you get a week like this week, where if these fairways get firm, you’re going to have work the ball to hold the greens and work the ball up the slope,” he said.
As the 2017 PGA Championship winner, Thomas knows how to win this tournament. The oddsmakers think he can win too, putting the former University of Alabama star at +1,500, behind Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy. They’ve become big game hunters too.
Fielding questions for media members on Tuesday afternoon, Thomas swayed from side to side with his hands on his hips. He looked like a bundle of fast-twitch muscles waiting to explode. There are no guarantees in golf, but he sure didn’t look like a man who would have a problem “getting into it” at Southern Hills.