CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The question Justin Thomas faced seven months ago was how to follow a season that featured five PGA Tour victories, his first major championship, the FedEx Cup and all the awards that go along with the best year in golf.
One solution was to avoid comparisons along the way, which was never going to be easy.
Quail Hollow presents one of those challenges.
Thomas played nine holes Tuesday with Tiger Woods, Bryson DeChambeau and Dru Love. It was the first time he set foot on Quail Hollow since the PGA Championship, when he holed a 15-foot putt on the first hole of the final round to escape with bogey, watched a birdie putt hang on the edge of the cup at No. 10 for the longest time before dropping, chipped in for birdie on the 13th hole and hit the best shot of his life – a 7-iron on the par-3 17th – for a birdie that clinched his first major.
These are memories, and how he plays this week at the Wells Fargo Championship has no bearing on what he accomplished last summer.
Neither will anything else he does this year.
“The course is going to be playing different,” he said. “That was a major, a different time of the year.”
On the table as he spoke was his phone, the only place he keeps his goals. Thomas doesn’t share them until the season is over, and if they’re anything like a year ago, they can be as specific as being among the top 30 in scrambling and as general as making the Ryder Cup team.
One objective drives him.
“Make my bad golf better,” he said.
The encore to last year cannot be measured because Thomas still has the more important half of the season ahead of him, which includes three majors and the FedEx Cup playoffs. But there already is proof that he is backing it up just fine.
For starters, Thomas is second in the Vardon Trophy to Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1 player, but maybe not for long. Thomas gets his third chance to move to No. 1 in the world this week, most likely needing around 12th place to overtake Johnson, who is not playing at Quail Hollow.
What gets Thomas even more excited are his finishes – not just the victories at the CJ Cup in South Korea last fall or the playoff he won at the Honda Classic, but the tie for 22nd at Kapalua at the start of the year. It’s his worst finish in his 10 individual events he has played.
The bad golf isn’t bad at all.
“I’m so much more consistent this year, which I really like,” Thomas said. “That’s what I’ve wanted to do this year. Get my bad golf better. No missed cuts. Have a chance to win more tournaments. Living around the top 10 is something Tiger did for a long time. He always had chances to win tournaments, and if he didn’t, he was always around, always on that first page of the leaderboard.”
That’s what led Thomas to believe he is playing better this year.
“I don’t have all the crazy things to go along with it,” he said.
Thomas had said he would seek advice from Woods and Jack Nicklaus, along with Jordan Spieth, on how to deal with living up to expectations after a big year. But it was a conversation he had with Nicklaus last summer before winning at Quail Hollow that had a more lasting effect.
“When I talked to Mr. Nicklaus last year, he said he adjusted his game plan according to how he was playing,” Thomas said. “I don’t know why I never thought about that, but it stuck with me. Because at the time, I wasn’t playing well. He said: `When you’re not playing well and you have a 6-iron, are you trying to make birdie? You probably won’t because you’re not playing well. Why wouldn’t you just hit the middle of the green?’
“I was like, `Why am I playing courses the same when I’m playing my best versus when I’m not playing well?“’ Thomas said. “That is a big part of why I’m having success this year.”
The conversation carried into the offseason with his father, Mike Thomas. The idea was to make ordinary weeks better instead of worse. To turn 40th place into 20th place.
Make the bad golf better.
“If he doesn’t have a chance to win … things irritate him more. He fires at flags he shouldn’t fire at,” Mike Thomas said. “He’s good up front. He’s not in the middle. We all sat and talked about that. It’s not that you need 5 more (FedEx Cup) points or an extra $5,000. It’s just a frame of mind. Try to always improve.”
It appears to be working.
Better than last year? Along with five victories, Thomas shot a 59 at the Sony Open and a 63 at the U.S. Open. Seasons like that are hard to top.
“I feel I’m capable of doing it again,” he said. “But it’s not like I’m going to have those on my refrigerator and checking them off. There are many things I want to do and can do. And like many things, I’m hoping it can happen.”
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