Justin Thomas: What’s Next?

Posted by: mike September 26th, 2017

By Jeff Shain

Golf Insiders contributor

 

ATLANTA – Flash back to October, and Justin Thomas opened his PGA Tour season with a 75 that included a pair of triple bogeys on his back nine.

“It’s looking like I’m going to miss the cut,” he recalled, “and I end up shooting 66 to make the cut on the number.”

It kept getting better after that, too. A 66-67 weekend in Napa lifted Thomas all the way to a share of eighth, he successfully defended his title in Malaysia a week later and sprinted off the line when the calendar turned by sweeping the Hawaiian double – shooting 59 at the Sony Open.

A major championship and FedExCup playoff victory would eventually follow. And though the season’s final round ended in the same manner as the first – walking off the 18th green muttering to himself – Thomas left no doubt he is now among the very elite.

“It was an unbelievable season,” the Kentucky native said Sunday after winning the FedExCup season title and accompanying $10 million bonus. “We’ve definitely come a long way since that 75. … To cap it off with a great day and great week to win the FedExCup is awesome.”Justin Thomas

Thomas’ five wins proved more than anyone else could collect in 2016-17. Half of his 24 PGA Tour starts ended with his name among the top 10. His finishing kick featured two wins in his last five starts, including the PGA Championship, and two other top-six finishes.

“He has the confidence, no matter what the stage is,” said Jordan Spieth, second on the final FedExCup points chart and a good friend of Thomas since their days running around top junior events.

And that vexed look after Sunday’s birdie try at No.18 rolled harmlessly past the cup? Hey, Thomas wanted a sixth victory.

“I’m sure people were kind of shocked at my reaction,” Thomas said. “That’s my competitive nature. I felt like I had a great chance to win this tournament and I didn’t. I wanted to win six times this year.”

Here’s that point: Nobody has won six times in a season since Tiger Woods in 2009. And only one man other than Woods has fashioned a six-win season in the past two decades – Vijay Singh’s amazing nine in 2004.

So forget the bonus for a moment. Thomas has a sense of history.

“Anytime you’re in the same sentence or the record book with Tiger,” he said, “that’s pretty impressive. I wanted to win for that.”

He wound up one stroke behind Xander Schauffele, who birdied No.18 to become the first Tour rookie to capture the Tour Championship.

It also marked the first time since 2009 that both trophies didn’t leave East Lake Golf Club in the hands of the same person – a nuance that Thomas still hadn’t gotten his subconscious completely around more than an hour after the ceremony.

“One of the best achievements of my career,” he said, “without winning a golf tournament. So it feels different, but it’s still great.”

He likened it a bit to Q-school, where one golfer finishes with the lowest score but some four dozen leave with a ticket to the Web.com Tour. (Or in the old days, a golden ticket straight to the PGA Tour.)

“You almost get out there not trying to win. You’re trying to finish a certain (quota),” he said. “If you told someone that going into a tournament – yeah, I’m just trying to finish better than 45th – it’s like why are you going?”

Suffice it to say Thomas is going places. In 12 months, he’s jumped from one career win into the top 160 on the PGA Tour’s career list. His season matches the career totals for former world No.1 Luke Donald and John Daly.

Though his rookie season in 2015 didn’t make the same splash as Spieth had done, it’s taken just two more years to catch up. Spieth, for one, never doubted it would come. It was just a matter of getting comfortable in the crucible.

“Just a tenacity, a confidence that takes experience in order to build and to have,” Spieth said.

Spieth saw it blossom in Hawaii, where Thomas became just the second man to sweep the Tournament of Champions and Sony Open. Ernie Els did it first in 2003.

At Kapalua, Thomas opened with three straight 67s but still found Hideki Matsuyama on his tail with three holes to play. Birdies at Nos. 17 and 18 provided some cushion in victory.

There was no doubt a week later. Thomas opened with that 59 – becoming the youngest to register one in a Tour event – and kept building. New Tour scoring records for 36, 54 and 72 holes followed in a seven-shot romp.

“When you come off a week like (Kapalua), it takes a lot out of you,” Spieth said. “And that next Sunday, the fact that he did that … it shows he has the confidence.”

Said Thomas: “Sony was a situation I’ve never experienced besides (in) junior golf. I had such a big lead that I just had to try to keep building it, as opposed to maintaining it.”

All year, Thomas had deflected any questions about what his goals were for 2016-17. On Sunday, he finally rattled them off.

There were 15 in all. He hit them all but one.

And now he’ll have to redraw the lines. How does one improve on a year like this? He’ll lean on guys like Spieth and Woods – whose Jupiter home isn’t far from Thomas – for advice.

“They’re the two people I’m closest to that have done something close to this,” he said. “I need to understand how to re-evaluate my goals, how to deal with everything. I’m going to have a lot more obligations. I’m going to have a lot more people wanting my time.”

It'll take some adjustment, as we’ve seen with Spieth. It’s fair to say, though, 2017 was just the launch point.

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Jeff Shain is a former Orlando Sentinel golf writer, part of nearly two decades covering the sport that includes other stops at The Miami Herald and The Island Packet in South Carolina. He's also a digital contributor to PGATour.com and Pro Golf Weekly, and co-hosts the Prime Sports Golf podcast at PrimeSportsNetwork.com.