After a disastrous 2023, Justin Thomas is in position to start the new year with a win

Justin Thomas at the American Express.

A resurgent Justin Thomas is in contention at the American Express

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Justin Thomas had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2023.

But he has a chance to get his new year off to a storybook start.

On a calm, drizzly Saturday in La Quinta, in his first-ever competitive round on the Stadium Course at PGA West, Thomas posted a blistering 11-under 61 to put himself in the hunt at the 2024 American Express.

He will start Sunday’s final round in third place place, four strokes off the pace set by University of Alabama sophomore Nick Dunlap, who shot a 60-a record-tying low for an amateur in a Tour event-at La Quinta Country Club, one of the two other courses in the Amex rota. 

“Obviously, not playing in competition in a while, you never now how it’s going to be,” Thomas said. “But I felt comfortable at La Quinta from the start, and started making birdies.”

The first of those third-round birdies came early, on the 2nd hole, and a barrage of them followed, including six in a row on the back nine, highlighted by a near ace on the par-3 13th, where Thomas’ 7-iron lipped out and settled inches from the cup. 

“That is so cruel,” Thomas said, watching the video replay of the almost hole-in-one.

Thomas’ sparkling play this week stands in marked contrast with his performance throughout much of the 2022-2023 season, a lackluster campaign in which he failed to notch a win and fell short of the FedEx Cup Playoffs for the first time. 

In assessing his year, no one was more critical of Thomas than Thomas, as when he mocked himself on social media in December for falling short on eight of the nine goals he’d set for the season. No major championship wins. No cluster of top-10 finishes. Even the goal he did achieve — playing in the Ryder Cup — came by virtue of a captain’s pick and was further tempered by the fact that Team USA lost. 

New year, though, new Thomas. After showing signs of life in late 2023, with 5th and 3rd-place finishes at the Fortinet Championship and the Hero World Challenge, respectively, Thomas is back to playing at his own lofty standard. Asked on Saturday what accounted for his resurgence, Thomas credited a combination of mental and physical factors. His frame of mind is better, he said, but so is his form.

“I think with one can sometimes come the other,” he said.

Thomas’ presence near the top of the leaderboard this weekend seems only fitting, as he was making headlines in La Quinta before the tournament even began. Coincidentally, those stories also involved Burns, who, as payment for a losing college football bet he made with Thomas, showed up in the desert with the letters RTR etched into his hair. Those letters stand for Roll Tide Roll, a rallying cry for the University of Alabama, where Thomas played collegiate golf. 

Burns, who played at ‘Bama rival LSU, will be in the final group with Dunlap on Sunday, with another Alabaman trailing close behind.

“I just got to go out tomorrow and make a lot of birdie and capitalize,” Thomas said. “And hopefully just get within striking distance going into the back nine.”

Josh Sens Editor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.