“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Justin Thomas with a look of genuine mystification on his face. “I’ll hit shots like the No 1 player in the world and then I’ll make a nine on the last hole of the tournament. I made two doubles and a quad. It’s eight-year-old, nine-year-old stuff, not someone who’s trying to win the British Open. I mean, you just can’t do stuff like that!”
Thomas, the two-times major winner and indeed a former world No 1, was speaking on Friday afternoon shortly before his failure to make the cut at this year’s Open was confirmed. Just 24 hours earlier he had entered its annals of infamy.
Thomas marked his card at 11 over par for the first round on Thursday, a score that included the aforementioned quadruple bogey on the 18th. There were seven other over-par holes and, for good measure, his third stroke of the day also went viral for the wrong reasons (clue: Thomas was standing four feet away from a bunker on the first, and was unable to elude its attentions). It wasn’t a great day.
The problem for Thomas is that it’s hardly the only bad day he’s had of late. After winning last year’s US PGA championship, the American has struggled. Of the 17 events he’s played this season, he has recorded neither a victory nor a second place. He has only finished in the top 10 three times. Thomas tied for 65th at this year’s US PGA and missed the cut at both the Masters and the US Open before doing so again at Hoylake.
So what’s eating Justin Thomas? Is he injured? “I mean, I feel fine. Though my wrist is a little sore because I hit the bunker so many times yesterday.”
Is it his diet … gluten and dairy free and adopted in response to fatigue issues in 2022? “I wish I felt worse, so I could say that it’s doing nothing.” Could it be his coach, who also happens to be his dad? “He feels bad as a coach and hates it for me as a father.”
Watching the 30-year-old’s second round here on Friday, a perfectly respectable level-par 71, you were struck by the truth of one of Thomas’s pithier observations: “There is nobody who hit 82 who hit some of the quality shots that I did.”
Of particular delight were the back-to-back birdies he registered at 14 and 15; the first decided by a 30-yard chip from beyond a roiling green, the second a get up and down from a tricky position on a tough hole with control and a degree of grace.
One argument mooted in hushed tones by those who watch him regularly is that Thomas wants every stroke to be a thing of beauty nowadays. That he is a player who has come to see himself as more of an artist than a technician. His friendship with Tiger Woods may have contributed something to this way of looking at things, the argument goes, or at least when the pair aren’t indulging in puerile jokes as at the Genesis Invitational this year.
Ask Rory McIlroy what the problem is, however, and the answer is simple. “That’s golf”, the pre-tournament favourite said of his friend. “We all go through bad patches. There’s not one player in the world that hasn’t. But he’s got the right people around him, and he’s got the right work ethic to get himself out of it.”
Whatever the cause, and the likelihood is it’s more complex than something that can be fixed in an instant, Thomas is putting pressure on himself to turn things around. He wants a place on Zach Johnson’s Ryder Cup team and would rather it didn’t come in the form of a captain’s pick.
“It’s not like I’m going to write him a love letter or anything,” Thomas said, having no issue with cracking wise in even these challenging circumstances. “I would like to think that my record is my best argument. I love the team events, I thrive in them, I just go out and enjoy it. Playing with a partner can ease me a little bit, relax me. But I don’t want to put him in this position.
“I hate having even to hope for a pick. I’m just hoping I can finish this year out strong.” Sadly for him that now means waiting for a week, and the 3M Open in Blaine, Minnesota.