In some respects, Justin Thomas is just what you’d expect to get if you asked central casting to send over a millennial golfer—joggers and hoodies, niblick-thin physique, social media playfulness, an easy swagger that is the privilege of youth. Yet a case can be made that Thomas is the most old school player on the PGA Tour, and Friday at the PGA Championship should be entered into the book of evidence.
Some of it is attitude, a flinty disposition that prizes grit and abhors quit. There’s plenty of old school in his golf swing too, as experts in that sort of thing will attest. Mostly, it’s evident in his gleeful embrace of conditions that flummox others, those all-too-rare days that demand imagination work in concert with execution. That’s not a challenge presented often in the weekly grind of the PGA Tour, where courses and the manner in which they are set-up tilt toward the one-dimensional. That changes if weather becomes a factor. The worse, the better, at least for Thomas.
Back in March, during the second round of the Players Championship—which was played mostly on the third and fourth days, thanks to rain delays—Thomas navigated TPC Sawgrass in 69 strokes despite a ferocious wind, and without making a single bogey. On a day when distance mattered less than trajectory, and balls seemed no safer on the ground than in the air, his was a beguiling display of shotmaking and creativity in which he hit 14 greens and needed just 29 putts. There have not been many more impressive rounds played on the PGA Tour this season.
“Prior to this week, his two best rounds of the year have been in heavy winds at both the Players and the Masters,” said his caddie, Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay. “He loves to create in terms of his ball flight.”
That creativity was presented a blank canvas for Friday’s second round at the 104th PGA Championship, when heavy gusts raked Southern Hills with all the predictability of a budget hotel hairdryer. Thomas found nine of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens, shaping and scraping his way to a second consecutive 67 on a course that is much more demanding than his scorecard would suggest. As the day wore on, his strokes gained statistics showed he had gained more than five shots on the field with his sometimes balky putter, and about a dozen shots with every other club in his bag.
Listening to Thomas dissect his round, he sounded pretty old school too. Here’s how he described playing the final hole:
“Being as windy as it was, it was a lot of manipulating and different shots … I couldn’t have really drawn it up much better. A perfect kind of little slider driver and leaving that gap wedge just under the hole there, and making that putt right in the middle. That was a nice way to end it.
“But that 6-iron that I hit on 5 today was nice,” he went on, warming to the task of recounting where he found joy in a day that brought misery to many of his less imaginative peers. “To be able to hit that thing up on the top shelf pin-high from 213 with a pumping crosswind off the left and then to make that putt, I felt like I stole one there. But that was a sweet shot.”
Thomas, who won this title in 2017, has an obvious enthusiasm for the shotmaking demands of major championships in general, and Southern Hills in particular. “Confidence,” he said, by way of explanation for his ability to not just survive but thrive in rougher conditions. “I have confidence that I can execute still and hit the shots that I want. I would like to hope a little bit of it is skill, that I’ve worked hard enough, that I’m good enough to be able to execute that kind of stuff. It sucks sometimes when you’re not playing well, but it’s fun to be able to challenge and execute some shots when you’re trying to.”
Imagination isn’t just something Thomas chooses to embrace, it is derived by necessity from his swing, in which Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee sees a great deal of old school too.
“His upright golf swing is a homage to swings like Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson,” Chamblee said. “Upright swings generally hit it higher and longer and tend to be a little wild from time to time so they come with a dependency on imagination for inevitable difficult recoveries.”
Statistics bolster that theory. Thomas ranks fifth on the PGA Tour in scrambling and is T-6 in sand saves.
“Incidentally,” Chamblee added, “Seve and Watson knew a thing about playing in terrible conditions.”
It’s not incidental that the tough conditions in which Thomas has succeeded came in the three biggest tournaments contested this year, the Players, the Masters and the PGA Championship. He admits the tests he tends to ace—flushing it in a wind that blows others off course—aren’t presented very often for a touring professional.
“It’s definitely more important some weeks than others,” he said. “You get to a place like Palm Springs where the wind doesn’t blow and the greens are pretty soft, it’s just see pin, hit pin, and go from there. But especially in a couple months when we get to St. Andrews, I think and hope that that’s going to be pretty useful.”
Old school golf, at the game’s most old school major and old school venue, is on his mind.
“But that’s a long way away” he said, snapping himself back a couple months and a few thousand miles from Scotland to Tulsa. “We’re just hoping that what I’m doing here just continues to work for this course.”
Published at Golfweek.com, May 20, 2022.