Justin Thomas keeps cool in chase for Player of Year honors

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It was early 2016, and to be fair, but a tiny snippet in a young PGA Tour pro’s long sophomore season. Teetering near the cutline at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Justin Thomas stood on the tee at TPC Scottsdale’s drivable par-4 17th hole on a Friday and overcooked a 3-wood left, toward the water.

The ball didn’t survive, but it fared better than the foot-high, freshly painted Waste Management box serving as right tee marker, which lay in splinters by the time the fiery Thomas departed the tee.

The takeaway: Yes, Tour pros can run hot and need space at times. But Justin Thomas had some growing up to do.

So here we are, a year and a half later, and the only mayhem on the course these days for the 24-year-old Thomas seems to be winning tournaments at a clip that has top competitors gasping to keep up. A winner one time in his first 70 PGA Tour starts, Thomas has reeled off five victories in 23 starts, and has had some big moments this year. Winning back-to-back in Hawaii, which included a 59 at the Sony. A record (to par) U.S. Open performance (9-under 63) at Erin Hills. A playoff victory in Boston. And, of course, his first major championship, the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. There should be more of those in store.

Thomas was destined for big things from his starry junior and amateur days, but as a pro he wanted to advance to the next level at breakneck speed. In a word, Thomas said he was “impatient.”  It didn’t help that his good pal Jordan Spieth had become golf’s newest rocket ship. The friends always pull for one another to have success, but hey, Thomas says he was jealous, too.

This season, Thomas’ pulse has slowed, and his patience level has risen. His last bad shot no longer stays with him for two or three holes. If he fails to birdie an easy hole, he’ll get the next one. That’s been a good thing. With seasoned looper Jimmy Johnson at his side, Thomas, with a five-victory, likely Player of the Year campaign, has broken from the pack of young twentysomethings in his class looking to join Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy et al in golf’s highest stratosphere.

After winning at TPC Boston this month, Thomas said he simply is a better golfer. It’s easy to build his case through numbers: Thomas has 11 top-10s this season, compared with seven in 2015-16; he has gone from 47th to fourth (69.315) in scoring, shaving more than a stroke off his average; he leads the Tour in eagles (holes per) and is second in birdie average one year after ranking 35th in both categories; his greens in regulation numbers have improved only slightly (67.06 percent from 65.63) but he has leaped more than 100 players in strokes gained: putting, moving from 131st to 27th.

When his short game feels sharp, Thomas feels as if he’s ready to contend. But what explains the overall surge? It helps that he has become sturdier physically to handle stretches such as these, when five big tournaments (four FedEx Playoffs events and the Presidents Cup) are staged in a six-week stretch.

More importantly, we’ve witnessed Thomas’ maturation on the mental side. He still carries that fire (“That’s just my personality,” he said) but channels it more positively. He has learned to turn 75s into 71s to stick around on bad days, and to compete without his best stuff. That’s what champions do.

Spieth said Thomas winning three out of four starts early this season was “absurd,” and better yet, Thomas used that as a jumping-off point. Says Spieth, “He took that confidence into a major championship and made it look pretty easy, too.”

Maybe the best part of all for Thomas is that he knows he is only getting started. He left Alabama early because he found it difficult to stay hungry and motivated after a monster freshman season in which he was college player of the year. That won’t happen to him today. He enjoys beating his good friends. He likes putting in the work. There are good players to push him, and now that he’s had a generous taste of winning, he wants more.

“I wish I had three majors right now,” Thomas said after winning at TPC Boston. “I’m obviously pleased with one, but I wish I had three.”

Right now, five victories in a season, one a major, and likely honors as PGA Tour Player of the Year with a strong finish this week at East Lake in the
Tour Championship will simply have to suffice.

If those are growing pains, they’re the best kind of all.

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