Why Justin Thomas is golf’s most compelling watch this week
Justin Thomas knows it’s crunch time.
That’s it. That’s basically the whole idea here. Justin Thomas knows it’s crunch time. We know he knows that. And he knows that we know that he knows. Knowing all of that, how will he perform here, in crunch time?
We have no idea.
What makes a professional golfer’s performance interesting to monitor? It varies week to week, of course, but you need a few ingredients. There’s the setting: What’s the significance of this tournament? There are the stakes: What does the golfer have on the line? There’s the pressure: What happens if the golfer comes up short? There’s the familiarity: How much do we know the player’s story? And then there’s the personal element: How much does it mean to the player?
Jot down the answers to those questions, tally ’em up and you’ll find you’re left with Thomas, this week, as the most interesting man in the field. The most interesting golfer in professional golf.
Let’s start with the setting. The Wyndham Championship is hardly the fifth major but, as the PGA Tour’s season finale, it’s become an increasingly intriguing event. It’s been the site of pros miraculously qualifying (think Jim Herman winning in 2020, jumping from No. 192 in the playoff race to No. 54) and memorably coming up short (think Tiger Woods showing up in 2015, chasing a win and a playoff berth, only to be undone by a triple bogey on Sunday). The Wyndham’s significance has only increased this year as the number of playoff spots has shrunk from 125 to 70, leaving more marquee names than usual on the outside looking in. That includes Thomas.
He also has been singing the praises of Sedgefield as a tournament venue. He called it a “great golf course” and added that he doesn’t just like it, he loves it. I’ll let you decide if he’s just using a page from Phil Mickelson’s playbook and trying to speak that positivity into existence, but it’s clear Thomas (unlike, say, Matt Wallace) is looking to find some harmony with this Donald Ross design.
To the stakes, then: Thomas is playing for a lot. He enters the week at No. 79 in the FedEx Cup. He needs to earn somewhere in the range of 75 points this week to have a shot at cracking the top 70. That means he needs to finish inside the top 10 to have a good chance. And he knows he needs to finish inside the top 10 to have a chance.
But it’s not just the FedEx Cup. It’s the Ryder Cup, too. Play well this week? Thomas suddenly has a stronger case to be on Team USA as they trek to Rome next month, hunting a road victory over the European side. Thomas is terrific in team events. All logic would dictate he’d be a core piece of this U.S. team. But he’s in arguably the worst rut of his PGA Tour career. He’s missed five of his last seven cuts. He’s lost strokes on approach in four consecutive tournaments, unthinkable for an iron player of his caliber. If he could play well enough to make it to the playoffs, he would have a good performance under his belt and he’d also have at least one more chance to prove himself in Memphis next week.
As a result Thomas faces a specific sort of pressure to which he’s probably unaccustomed. For the last half-decade his game has spoken for itself. His performances have taken care of everything. Now, he’s playing tournaments he usually doesn’t (like last week’s 3M Open and this week’s Wyndham) with a specific goal in mind: secure enough FedEx Cup points to make it through. Thus far Thomas hasn’t risen to the occasion; it was surprising to see him miss the cut at the Rocket Mortgage, it was shocking to see him shoot 83 at the Open Championship and it was disappointing to see him on the wrong side of another cut line at the 3M. But now he has one more chance.
“I know I’m really, really close to playing some really, really good golf,” he said ahead of the event. “The reality is, you know, I need to play well this week to give that an opportunity to come out. That’s the unfortunate but also realistic part of where I’m at right now.”
If Thomas doesn’t make it, he’s far less likely to make the trip to Rome. He’s also no longer qualified for next year’s signature events on Tour, the limited-field big-money events that will take the top 50 from this year’s FedEx Cup. Will Thomas be in those events anyway? Yeah, probably. He’d have other ways to play his way in or, at worst, he’d be a shoo-in sponsor’s exemption. But that’s not the same thing as qualifying.
Thomas’ standing is interesting because he’s familiar. Golf fans know him. They knew him from spring break in 2017 and they’ve known him ever since because he’s been a top-10 golfer in the world the entire time. Until now, of course. Thomas fell out of the top 10 this spring; he’s down to No. 26. Whether you’re a career-long fan or just picked him up from the Netflix show last season, you likely have some televisional relationship with Thomas. That’s what makes his quest for the playoffs just a touch more gripping than, say, Kevin Streelman, who is actually chasing his 16th-consecutive postseason. That’s also very cool, for the record. I’m eager to see how he fares. But Streelman isn’t under the microscope and knows he’s not, while Thomas is under the microscope and knows he is. Same tournament. Same course. Slightly different circumstances.
As for Thomas’ personal x-factor? That’s what elevates this entire thing. Thomas wants it bad. He wants the FedEx Cup. He really wants the Ryder Cup. He wants to continue elevating his place in the golf world. I keep thinking back to what he told our Sean Zak about how he sees his career at age 30.
“Having two majors is great, but I want five,” he said. “Fifteen [career] wins is great, but I want 30. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but that’s the reality.”
In that same interview, Thomas stressed how he has no interest in being “out here trying to grind out a tie for ninth or 13th.” He wants seasons where he wins five times or more. That makes it even more interesting to see him here, near the conclusion of a zero-win season, very much grinding for a ninth-place finish.
Thomas’ opening-round even-par 71 at Sedgefield served as the perfect Rorschach Test for his recent play. It wasn’t a great round; Thomas slogged through a rainy morning to finish in the middle of the pack. But it wasn’t a terrible round, either. One low one will put him back in contention.
“I played fine,” he said afterward. “I didn’t really do anything well, I didn’t do anything terribly.”
That introduces one extra bit of context that bears mentioning. While it’s been a rough stretch by Thomas’ standards, it’s only gotten this bleak very recently. His 2023 began with five top-25 finishes in a row. He’s logged three top-10s, including a T9 at the Travelers in June. He made 10 of his first 11 cuts before the MCs started piling up these last two months. Asked at the Open about Thomas’ struggles, Rory McIlroy could only chuckle.
“JT will be just okay,” he said, dismissing any alternate possibility.
But now Thomas has just three days left to find “okay.” If he doesn’t, he’ll likely find it next year. But next year is months away, and who’s to say if it’ll be easier then than it is this week? Thomas feels the urgency of the now. Time to see what that urgency gets him.