JT's dismal 2023 becoming a distant memory

JT's dismal 2023 becoming a distant memory

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Here’s a trivia question: Which player has gained the most strokes on the field in tournament competition over the past six months?

“This feels like a loaded question,” Justin Thomas says with a smirk as he walks across the range at Riviera.

Indeed, it’s him.

Fresh off the worst year of his decorated career – three top-10s, no playoff appearance, three major missed cuts, captain’s pick for a cup – Thomas is once again playing at a higher level than his peers, gaining 2.68 strokes per round on the field over that span, per data account Dice Scientist.

That's better than world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler.

Better, too, than Viktor Hovland or Rory McIlroy or Jon Rahm.

JT is back where he belongs, and his quiet return to competitive relevance could conjure all sorts of emotions for one of the best players of his generation.

Giddiness. Relief. Validation.

And it's all of that, for sure, but there’s also a sense of pride.

“What I kept reminding myself is: ‘You’re going to laugh at this one day. You’re going to be so much better off for it.’ I seared that into my brain,” Thomas said. “And now I feel a lot more at ease.”

Genesis Invitational - Previews
Genesis Invitational - Previews

Genesis Invitational tee times, groupings for Round 2 at Riviera

Tee times and groupings for Tiger Woods and others for Round 2 of the Genesis Invitational at Riviera.

Every elite player goes through temporary dips in performance, but Thomas’ decline was stunning because of its timing. He won the Players in 2021. He added a second PGA title in 2022. He’d been consistently excellent each and every year since he splashed on Tour in 2014. But last year he changed his diet and chased perfection and strayed from the DNA in his swing, getting to a point last summer that, when he looked at videos on his phone, he was stunned by how far away he’d drifted.

But that was just the technical aspect; eventually, that could get fixed with some dedicated time off, with some guidance from his father Mike, with thousands and thousands of range balls in South Florida.

Mentally, it was more of a challenge. He’s been a prolific winner at every level, for as long as he can remember, and now he was flopping in featured groups and shooting 80s in majors and showing up at courses he loved knowing that he had virtually no chance to win.

“That’s a pretty shi--y feeling,” he said.

Thomas has spoken with sports psychologists in the past, and he could confide in close friends like Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler who have recently gone down similar paths, and he maintains several athlete-friends to bounce ideas off of. But this was different, much deeper, long-lasting, so last year he linked up with renowned mental guru Julie Elion to talk through his struggles.

“You just can’t fake it and convince yourself you’re playing great and swinging great if you’re not,” Thomas said, “but what I’ve learned is that you’re never really as far away as you think. It’s what Julie kept hammering into me: ‘It’s going to end. You’re not going to always continue to play so bad.’ The media, and what people are telling you, it makes it seem worse and bigger than it is. So it was really just simplifying it and making it a lot smaller than it was.”

In many of their conversations, golf was hardly discussed.

“I think it’s a very normal thing, to be honest with you,” he said. “You know, we’re men, and we’re just supposed to push things away, and if you actually have or express feelings, you’re soft. And, sure, to an extent, I definitely think there’s some stuff that you can toughen up and handle. But there’s others that, over a handful of years, if you just push stuff down, and you haven’t really gotten it out and talked about it, then it can wear on you so much more than you think.

“What I did really well for a very long time, and what I’ve gotten back to, is just understanding to be as patient as possible with it. It’s a long career. You’re going to have ups and downs. And the goal is to minimize those downs.”

Exacerbating Thomas’ issues last summer was the nagging belief that, week by week, he was frittering away his chance to play on the Ryder Cup team. When he failed to qualify for the FedExCup playoffs for the first time in his career – his average finish over the previous six seasons: 3.6 – the decision was completely out of control.

“Once that was over, whether it was good or bad, I felt like a total weight was gone. I don’t think I had any idea how much I was trying for that,” he said. “I wanted to make the team so badly that I was screwing myself up. I wasn’t trying to play well for myself anymore.”

That isn’t the case anymore.

Thomas has always admittedly chased perfection and lofty expectations, sometimes to his own detriment, and on the long flight back home from The Open he finally decided to return to what made him a future Hall of Famer at 30. Technically, that meant lowering his hands at the top of his backswing to keep from getting too steep, and continuing to work on the right things. Mentally, it took some help tapping into what has always made him great.

The early returns this season, and over the past six months, are resoundingly positive – which is why he’s the surprising answer to the trivia question. His driving has improved. His iron play is noticeably sharper. And he’s playing cleaner; after posting just a single bogey-free round in 2023 (72 total), he already has three in just 11 chances, with another of his favorite venues, Riviera, on deck this week.

“I know what it can be like,” he said, “and I just want to win a lot of tournaments again. I feel a lot more like myself.”