Here’s what you can learn from Justin Thomas’ off-the-charts golf IQ

Justin Thomas is a serial winner. Has been since his days in junior golf, and is today on the PGA Tour. The 27-year-old’s victory at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational marks his 13th PGA Tour title and launched him to World No. 1 once again.

His performance was rife with fantastic shots from tee-to-green, but the lasting moment for me came on JT’s 72nd hole, a 450 yard par-4 where he secured the tournament with one bad shot, one decent shoot, a very good shot, and a tap in. The highlights are fun to watch, but it’s often the lowlights, like this specific moment, that are what recreational golfers can learn the most from, and mark the sign of a truly elite player like JT.

It started on the tee. JT pulled a 3-wood and hit one of the worst shots of the day — something resembling a block-fade. With water and OB left, and a slim two-shot lead in the tournament, the reason for the miss was more mental than technical: Good old fashioned nerves.

“I saw that I had a two-shot lead, hence the reason I hit it right of the universe,” Thomas said afterwards. “It was not going left, I promise you that.”

Players win based on the quality of their bad shots, not just their good shots.

(PGA TOUR)

There are two things worth pointing out here.

The first is what JT pointed out himself in the quote above: He immediately identified the worst-case scenario. There is exactly one shot on this tee that will lose you the tournament, and it’s missing left. Hit the ball literally anywhere but left — even if it’s a million yards to the right — and you’re still in with a chance of winning the tournament. It’s classic winning ugly, golf-is-a-game-of-misses stuff. JT’s shot wasn’t a good one, but he doesn’t care. It was exactly the right kind of bad shot (which in some ways makes it a great shot).

The second decision point was his club selection. The most common play here was to take a driver, blast it past those bunkers with a draw. Indeed, some would have probably recommended JT hit driver here too, considering he was due to finish earlier than the others. Hit a good shot, and the tournament is effectively over.

But hitting that shot also comes with a potential cost: It brings more water into play. It brings OB long into play, and maybe even the water all the way to the right. If JT hit a similar shot to the one he did on the 16th hole or the one he did eventually with his 3-wood, he would’ve been somewhere between super blocked-out and OB.

A bad drive would’ve been OB, blocked out, or worse.

(GOOGLE EARTH)

But JT really wasn’t interested in playing the risk-reward game. By pulling back and hitting 3-wood, he effectively made his margin of error huge: Anywhere but left. It all but guaranteed he could hit an atrocious shot and still be fine, which is pretty much exactly what happened.

The same miss with a 3-wood gives him an almost-clear shot to the green.

(GOOGLE EARTH)

Fast-forward to the next shot. JT actually got a little unlucky with the lie — the ball was way below his feet — but he had a pretty unencumbered view of the green.

Once again, JT identified the absolute no-go zone, which was anything left. The green is obviously the goal, but the best worst-case scenario is long left. The pin is tucked front left, so long right, where the grass is mowed low, gives you lots of green to work with.

(GOOGLE EARTH)

When the ball is below your feet, it will make the ball go right. Remember that for the next time you play. Sometimes a ball below your feet can prompt a compensation in your swing (like a flip of your hands, for instance) which will make the ball stay straight, but on the whole, it’s a pretty sure bet that if the ball is below your feet, the ball will go to the right.

But what’s interesting is that JT isn’t banking on the ball going right. His clubface, at least from what I can tell, is aiming pretty much at that sponsor’s structure, which is in the middle of the green.

Why? Because if JT aims left and hope the slope will bring it back to the middle of the green, best case scenario is that it hits the middle of the green. The worst case scenario is that the ball says straight, flies right of the green and goes into the water. Game over.

A mis-hit finds the center, a standard shot sets up an easy chip.

(PGA TOUR)

And so JT aimed aimed at the middle of the green and clubbed up. If it goes right as he expects, he catches the right side of the green or into that area where he’ll have an easy chip. If he double-crosses it, he’ll probably catch the left side of the green.

His eventual shot seemed to come out a little more right than he expected, but still ended in the aforementioned chipping area.

Playing the percentages often isn’t glamorous, but it works.

(PGA TOUR)

The ball settled about pin high 30 yards right of the green, with a nice lie and a ton of green to work with. If somebody told you to place your ball in the easiest place to get up-and-down, you’d be a fool not to place it here.

Pin high with lots of green to work with: The perfect miss.

(PGA TOUR)

JT’s shot, in reality, was much shorter than 30 yards, because all he needed to do was hit his ball about a yard onto the green. JT being JT, executed it perfectly, lofting the ball into the perfect spot and letting it trickle down into tap-in range.

“That chip shot on 18 was pretty sick.” he said. “It’s not a hard shot to hit inside 10 feet, but it’s pretty hard to hit as close as I did under the circumstances and the grain and the nerves. I was pretty proud of that one.”

With so much green to work with, JT hit a soft chip and let the green do the rest.

(PGA TOUR)

JT’s par won him the day, and while his previous 17 holes featured a host of impressive shots, his drive and approach wouldn’t fall into that category. And therein lies the lesson: JT’s decision on each of his first two shots had only one priority — anywhere but left. It’s something the rest of us can learn from. Step up to a hole, identify the one area of the hole where you absolutely can’t go, and play the hole around it.

JT won the tournament not because, at the last moment, he hit shots that were perfectly executed. Instead, he hit imperfect shots that were perfectly managed.

Golf remains a game of misses.

Luke Kerr-Dineen

Golf.com Contributor

Luke Kerr-Dineen is the Director of Game Improvement Content at GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. In his role he oversees all the brand’s service journalism spanning instruction, equipment, health and fitness, across all of GOLF’s multimedia platforms.

An alumni of the International Junior Golf Academy and the University of South Carolina–Beaufort golf team, where he helped them to No. 1 in the national NAIA rankings, Luke moved to New York in 2012 to pursue his Masters degree in Journalism from Columbia University and in 2017 was named News Media Alliance’s “Rising Star.” His work has also appeared in USA Today, Golf Digest, Newsweek and The Daily Beast.