A year ago, when Justin Thomas arrived in Memphis to defend his WGC title, he had gone a year without winning and was recovering from a wrist injury that forced him to miss the PGA Championship in May.
It was a frustrating stretch for the former World No. 1.
“I felt like I was arguably playing some of the best golf that I’ve played in my career kind of leading into the Masters, I just was struggling with my putter,” he said. “Then the wrist injury happened and I had so much time off and so much time where I was able to only putt that I over-putted myself into a deep, deep hole that I’ve never experienced in my life and I’ve never felt so lost on a putting green ever, just trying to chase perfection.”
Thomas began to find his stroke again on the greens here at TPC Southwind, finishing T-12, and has been a force to be reckoned with ever since. In 20 worldwide starts since last July, Thomas has finished outside the top 20 only three times. He’s won three time since – the BMW Championship, the CJ Cup, and the Sentry Tournament of Champions – and nearly captured the Workday Charity Open earlier this month, losing in a playoff to Collin Morikawa.
Thomas has 12 career victories and one of the better records with the 54-hole lead, but in addition to squandering a three-stroke lead with three holes to go at Muirfield Village recently, he ballooned to a final-round 75 in tough conditions last year at the Genesis Invitational and got passed by J.B. Holmes and nearly gave away the title in Hawaii in January with a sloppy finish. To Thomas, it isn’t so much a case of scar tissue building up but the realities of how hard it is to close out victories on the PGA Tour.
“There’s a reason there’s only one (player who wins) every week, there’s a reason why not very many people have done it, not many people have done it multiple times, why a lot of people don’t have a very good closing record with a 54-hole lead. It’s hard. It’s very difficult,” he said.
It’s also hard to have a bullseye on your back as World No. 1, something Spaniard Jon Rahm will experience for this first time this week.
“I just remember being a little more nervous that week because it’s like, you know, all eyes are on you and you’re the best player in the world, so you feel like you should kind of play up to that,” he said. “I think it’s probably one of the first times I felt like no matter how I played, I was going to get an interview after my round. That’s something there’s maybe two people in the world that get that done, I would say Tiger and probably Rory and now probably Jon.
“Every time you finish a round, it doesn’t matter if you shoot 65 or 95, they want to talk to you and hear about it and that’s just the way that it is.”
But what separates Thomas, 27, from some of the other players who reached the top of the mountain is he’s not afraid of the spotlight. In fact, he craves it and he wants to be remembered as one of the best to play the game. He’s No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings, but he wants more than just to pad his bank account.
He’s eyeing next week’s major and the U.S. Open just around the corner and three playoff events during a power-packed schedule over the next two months. And the World No. 3 wants to regain the title held by Rahm, which he had in his possession back in May 2018 for all of four weeks.
“It’s never something that I won’t want to have and won’t be trying to get to if I’m not there,” he said of being No. 1. “The thing about that is it’s not about getting there, it’s about how long can you stay there. There’s a lot of people – I shouldn’t say a lot; however many and a certain amount of people who have been there – but there’s only a small amount of people who have held it for a long amount of time and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
When asked to define what he considered a long time, Thomas said, “Anything longer than the two weeks that I had it or whatever it is. No, I mean, I would hope to have it, you know, a couple years by the end of my career.”
He’ll be among the favorites this week at a course he said reminds him of East Lake in Atlanta, home of the Tour Championship, and if he wins he’ll be No. 1 heading into the PGA Championship next week at TPC Harding Park.
“If you drive it well, if you hit the fairways, it’s not a very difficult golf course,” he said of TPC Southwind. “You have a pretty good amount of short irons and some wedges to where you can control your distance into the greens.”
Thomas will walk those Memphis fairways again this year wearing shoes designed by a St. Jude patient. Nate from Oklahoma decorated them with pizzas, his favorite food to eat.
“It’s just cool,” Thomas said. “He’s now cancer free and he’s a very inspiring kid.”