The Pre-Tournament Zen of Defending PGA Champion Justin Thomas
—by Jay Flemma, Golf News Net—
PITTSFORD, NY – The undercurrent running throughout this 105th PGA Championship is patience. Oak Hill East a much different golf course than the golfers and patrons have ever seen before, and definitely harder than any of them will have seen it play. The rough will rival any 1970s or ‘80s U.S. Open. Greens have been expanded so that their edges come closer to the hazards guarding them. Oh, and they had a frost delay today. No one on the golf course until after 8:00.
Never saw that coming, did they? There’s only snow on I-90 on Mother’s Day one out of every four or five years, right? (***rolls eyes***)
“It snowed, what, three weeks ago?” noted a puckish defending champion Justin Thomas as nervous chuckles spread throughout the media center interview room. He was just saying what everyone else was thinking.
Now in his tenth year as a pro and winner of two PGA Championships, we’ve watched Justin Thomas grow from a green and grateful neophyte on the PGA Tour to one of its strongest competitors. Now he hopes to repeat the success he enjoyed last year: muddling through an up-and-down start to the season, then peaking at the right time, and playing consistently enough give himself a shot to win on Sunday. That’s the formula he used last May at Southern Hills to hoist his second Wanamaker Trophy. With his experience in the clutch and the phlegmatic attitude he showed in the interview room, he should make a strong title defense.
“I felt like I showed a lot of really good signs in Charlotte. I think Saturday was a great example. It just was a round where I didn’t really have very much. I felt like I left a couple shots out there putting-wise and just wasn’t sharp; I was hitting a lot of very poor wedges and irons,” Thomas explained. “[But} I birdied two of the last four holes and salvaged an under par round on a tough golf course. Bones and I said on 18 green, this is the stuff that we haven’t been doing this year. I felt like that 70 that I shot that day or the rounds that I’ve been shooting 73 and 74, which then gave me an opportunity to play myself into contention with nine holes left, whereas I wouldn’t have been that way beforehand.”
And therein lies one of the truths about winning a major golf championship: in the crucible of a major, you’re not going to play well all week. You just have to play well in the clutch. That’s exactly what Thomas did last year at Southern Hills; his 67 on Sunday was a charge a la Jack Nicklaus in his heyday. Thomas made up seven shots and passed nine players in order to make the 3-hole playoff with Will Zalatoris, which Thomas won by a stroke.
Experience and patience are two critical aspects when coming down the stretch, and Thomas not only has his new-found zen, but a kindred spirit in caddie Bones McKay, once Phil Mickelson’s man Friday, and now on-course guru for Thomas.
“I’ve never felt so far and so close at the same time. That’s a very hard thing to explain, and it’s also a very hard way to try to compete and win a golf tournament,” Thomas began. “He’s [McKay’s] very positive; he’s very encouraging. He’s someone that — especially now – he’s gotten to know me well enough; he can tell when I’m upset or he can tell when I’m down on myself….I’m very, very lucky to have him by my side because he definitely makes things a lot easier and better for me.”
Still, caddies don’t hit the golf shots, players do, and with the rough thick and juicy and the May wind still howling – sometimes with a crisp bite that says Old Man Winter won’t go quietly, (we sometimes had snow on June 3 on I-90!), sometimes with a humidity that portends a mighty thunderstorm that could turn this new look Oak Hill East Course to Soak Hill in a few hours.
Thomas has never played here before, so he won’t have a frame of reference to compare the pre-and post renovation courses, but his love of old classic courses translates well here: tough golf course requiring accurate placement on tee shots, even more challenging second shots to devilish Donald Ross green complexes, now sharpened even more by runoff chipping areas, murderous rough behind greens, and deeper, more steeply-faced bunkers.
“A lot of it is very situational around the greens. It’s kind of unique because a lot of the run-offs behind the greens and side of the greens, they don’t really run off to the fairway. They run off to the rough, and they run off to the first cut,” he stated. “I generally travel with two different 60-degrees, one T-grind, one K-grind. It just is basically based on the turf. I feel like a T is just going to — it’s just better to chip off of, which is what I use 85 percent of the time anyway.”
So, if patience is what the new Oak Hill East requires, that’s what an older, wiser, Justin Thomas has in bulk.
“I’ve preached this to myself: how you learn is failure and negatives, and I feel like I’ve had a great opportunity for a lot of learning the past,” Thomas admitted candidly. “You get out of it just [by] playing your way out of it and hitting the shots when you want to and making those putts when you need to, and then your confidence builds back up. Everything is not as big of a deal as you think it is….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.”
Thomas has won 15 times on the PGA Tour in his career, including the 2019 BMW Championship, the 2021 Players Championship as well as PGA Championships in 2017 and 2022.