2023 British Open: Major season over, mired in a slump, Justin Thomas has plenty on the line
HOYLAKE, England – Without timeouts, substitutes or teammates, competitive golf produces the loneliest environments. The last two players on the range on a major Sunday. A cleared final green before a must-make putt. And then there’s the miserable arena that Justin Thomas currently occupies: He’s battling through a months-long slump for all the world to see, with nowhere to hide, no immediate end in sight and no time to waste.
For longtime observers, it’s jarring to watch, really. Born into a family of teaching pros, Thomas’ career trajectory has known only one direction. He was a prolific winner as a junior. He was a national player of the year in college. And now he’s a 15-time PGA Tour winner, a multiple major champion and a U.S. team stalwart. With his classic swing, raging competitiveness and golf IQ sharpened by Tiger Woods, Thomas seemed not just impervious to pressure but also allergic to poor performance: Since his rookie year, he has never gone a full year without winning, never recorded fewer than seven top-10s, never finished worse than 12th in the FedExCup.
But for the first time in his golfing life, Thomas is struggling. Mightily. His summer slide continued here at The Open, where he matched the worst score of his career (82) in the opening round and missed yet another cut, his fourth in his last six starts, with an 11-over 153 total.
“I’m hitting a lot of good shots, I’m just making so many boneheaded mistakes and crazy things happening,” he said Friday in a crowded interview room at Royal Liverpool. “I’ll be fine.”
The most immediate concern for Thomas is what this dry spell means for his postseason eligibility. Projected 75th in the standings, he now must add one, if not two, late-summer starts just to qualify for the 70-man playoffs. (He committed Friday to next week’s 3M Open.) Thomas isn’t in danger of losing his card, but he could, potentially, miss out on the designated events in 2024. If he doesn’t advance to the second playoff event, he’d either need to rely on one of the four sponsor exemptions per elevated tournament or remain among the top 30 in the world. (He’s currently ranked 20th and falling, fast.) It’s an unthinkable reality for a player who typically books his ticket to East Lake by March.
“Everybody has their waves, their momentum and rides and rock bottoms,” Thomas said. “I just keep telling myself: This is it. I’m coming out of it. I unfortunately have surprised myself a couple of times with some bad rounds. It doesn’t mean a day’s good play like today (even-par 71) doesn’t get a spark going. I don’t know. All I can do is try to be in the frame of mind for it, too.”
A secondary concern is what Thomas’ play means for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Automatically qualifying is no longer a realistic consideration – he’s 13th on the list – but not making the playoffs could endanger his prospects of earning one of the six captain’s selections, too. The pool of American contenders is two-dozen deep, and captain Zach Johnson would be hard-pressed to justify a Thomas pick if he’s coming off his worst stretch as a pro and sitting at home during the Tour postseason.
“I’m concerned because he’s my buddy and I know what he’s capable of,” said Johnson, who is sharing a house this week with Thomas and Jordan Spieth. “Bottom line is, this game is really hard. There’s going to be peaks. There’s going to be some valleys. Let’s hope whatever sort of non-peak he’s in, it’s short. Guys with talent like that that work and aren’t afraid to put in the work in the dirt typically find it. It’s just a matter of when, not if. He’s too darned good.
“I might be slightly concerned, as a friend, but I’m not worried about him because I know what he does and I know what he’s capable of.”
No current American has a higher winning percentage in team competition than Thomas, who has amassed a 16-5-3 mark since his first cup appearance in 2017. He’s close with several members of Team USA. He’s partnered well with Spieth. And he’s a passionate leader and needed presence in the team room.
“I want to make the Ryder Cup more than anything,” Thomas said. “I’m probably, honestly, trying too hard to do it.”
The way he has pressed this summer reminds Thomas of 2016, when he was trying desperately to make his first Ryder Cup team. That year he went six consecutive events without a top-10, spoiling his bid to represent the U.S. squad and eventually getting passed over for the likes of J.B. Holmes and Ryan Moore.
Now Thomas is the one with the pedigree – “I would like to think that my record is my best argument” – while also acknowledging that past performance can only take him so far. At some point, form becomes a consideration, and he has finished better than 60th just once in his last seven starts.
“I hate even having to hope for a pick,” he said.
But beyond the playoffs and Ryder Cup, there’s a more human element to one of the only low periods of Thomas’ career. His father, Mike, has been the only coach he’s ever had. Mike has attended nearly all of his son’s pro starts, a consistent and steady presence, a lifelong club pro whose lone pupil now is one of the best players on the planet. The achievements they’ve been able to share together, the winning photos captured for perpetuity, are family treasures. A dream realized. But there also can’t be a worse scenario for a father-son, player-coach relationship than a prolonged slump. The irritation. The bickering. The silence. It seems impossible to keep what happens inside the ropes separate from the family life outside of it.
“It’s been tough,” Thomas said. “He feels bad as a coach. He hates it for me as a father. Neither one of us want anything to be bad when it comes to my golf, but we’re working hard. We’re trying as hard as we can.”
Early Friday morning, Thomas arrived on the range at Hoylake with just his launch monitor, alignment stick and caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay. He settled into Bay 16 and was soon flanked by Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm, two of the top players in the world who had their swing coaches in tow – but only for comfort, not consultation. Thomas, meanwhile, worked alone, hitting wedge after wedge for 20 minutes, trying to groove a feel. His right wrist was taped – the byproduct of slashing through so much fescue during his opening 82 – but he betrayed no sense of frustration with his swing.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Thomas said. “I’ll hit shots like a No. 1 player in the world, and then I’ll make a 9 on my last hole of the tournament. I don’t know if it’s a focus thing or I’m just putting too much pressure on myself, but when I figure it out, I’ll be better for it.”
Two of Thomas’ closest friends on Tour are Spieth and Rickie Fowler, both of whom have recently emerged from years-long slumps that threatened their careers. In hindsight, those downturns in form were not sparked by a bad shot or an injury, a poor tournament or a fruitless stretch. They were slow and gradual, middling results piling on top of each other until, eventually, the confidence dwindled and the ranking suffered.
Thomas’ slump had been slow and subtle, too, at least until recently. As Scottie Scheffler, Rahm and McIlroy each elevated to new levels, Thomas’ success rate has slowed. One of the best and most consistent players of his generation, the 30-year-old has won just twice in the past three seasons – granted, two massive tournaments, the 2021 Players and 2022 PGA – and on each occasion required bursts of sublime golf as well as some help from the rest of the field.
To this point, Thomas hasn’t fallen nearly as far as Spieth and Fowler before him. His skills remain well above average on Tour (he’s 43rd in strokes gained: total) but his numbers are still down across the board. He’s dropped 55 spots off the tee. His approach play has been very good but no longer exceptional. There are 151 players with better putting stats, despite him tinkering with different putters, different grips, different methods of green-reading. Earlier this year, he overhauled his diet – not to lose weight, of course, but to solve a leaky gut and mysterious dips in energy. He feels great, he said, even if it has left him wanting to “do some really messed-up things” for a pizza doused in ranch.
“JT will be OK,” McIlroy said. “JT is one of the most talented guys out here. Yeah, we all go through bad patches. That’s golf. 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.”
But it still doesn’t make days like these feel any better. Just a month ago, Thomas said he felt “humiliated” and “embarrassed” after a second-round 81 to bomb out of the U.S. Open. Then he was one shot worse Thursday at Royal Liverpool, his 82 matching the worst score of his career and putting him next-to-last in a field of 156.
Anything was possible in the second round here on a cool day with freshening wind. Perhaps there’d be more misery. Maybe it’d be the start of a miraculous turnaround. Johnson walked past Thomas on the way to the range, his roommate’s shoulders back and head held high, ready to enter sports’ loneliest arena again.
“The kid doesn’t quit,” Johnson said.
After two decades of sustained success, Thomas doesn’t know how.