WILMINGTON, Del. – Justin Thomas was happy, at least as happy as Thomas can be halfway through the tournament, which is to say he was still slightly annoyed. Few have the appetite for competition like the 29-year-old and even fewer have mastered their game as much, a dynamic that breeds a ferocity where anything less than brilliant is no good. But on Thursday afternoon, Thomas let that guard down to acknowledge that yes, things had gone well. Especially in a field that, of late, has been the bane of his existence.
“I played really solid. I felt like I managed my game well. I didn’t have full control of my ball,” Thomas said after the first round of the BMW Championship. didn’t drive as well as I would have liked or stall as well as I would have liked, but I’ve been throwing the ball my best for a long, long, long time. I mean, even every putt I missed, I hit him right where I wanted and it looked like he had a chance to go in. It was nice for him to feel comfortable and get the speed I wanted on my putts and see a few of those fall.
Thomas is in contention in the return leg of the tour playoffs thanks to an opening 66 at Wilmington CC. That in and of itself isn’t surprising. He is the defending PGA champion, a player who is fifth on the tour in scoring and seventh in the world rankings and 10th entering the week in the FedEx Cup standings. A 66 from Thomas is as routine as the mail. However, the Thomas who captured the Wanamaker hasn’t been the same Thomas since.
The results, even by Thomas’ high standards, aren’t terrible. With the exception of a final-round duel with Canada’s Rory McIlroy and Tony Finau – Thomas eventually walking away with a bronze medal – they weren’t great either. He finished T-37 at the US Open and T-53 at The Open Championship. Missed cuts at Scottish Open and Charles Schwab Challenge. There was a respectable T-13 last week at the St. Jude Championship, though it was a finish of the backdoor variety.
“I feel like my game is getting closer. I’m playing a lot better than the scores, and I feel like the results show,” Thomas said earlier this week in Delaware. is how golf is sometimes. I just have to be patient and hope to get one one of these next two weeks, preferably the second.
It’s not so much that Thomas failed to wrestle, but why. Specifically, the putter.
Although he is far from being a connoisseur of the short game, putting has been particularly cruel over the past two months. Thomas finished 62nd out of 69 players who made the cut in Memphis in strokes won/putting. The US Open wasn’t much better (56 out of 64 that reached the weekend), and the flatstick was the reason it had a quick exit at the Scottish Open (-2.32 SG /put over two rounds). The crisis led Thomas to switch putters this week in Wilmington. Nothing radical; he still uses a Scotty Cameron T5 model, only this club is slightly shorter.
“I changed because it felt exactly the same. [Cameron] did an amazing job,” Thomas said. “It’s very difficult to make putters exactly the same in terms of feel. They may be the same, but none of them are ever the same in terms of clubs in general. But it’s identical, so adapting and acclimating to the speed wasn’t difficult, but being a bit shorter made it so much easier for me to get a good setup. It’s something we looked at earlier this year and we were going to ruin this offseason, but I haven’t been very good at what I think I should be, and that was just one of those things. I figure, if this is going to be an easy adjustment that’s going to help me get better, then why wouldn’t I do it.
The fit is relatively simple, with the new length – this model is about half an inch shorter – allowing Thomas’ arms to hang down in a more comfortable position while keeping his shoulders level. Another change with the putter should also be noted: this model has Thomas’ personal logo on the back of the face. Agree, because he left his mark on this course on Thursday afternoon.
It wasn’t pretty; Thomas only hit six fairways that day. But what he lacked in precision, he made up for on the approach, only missing one green on his course, and didn’t let those opportunities slip by: the putter switch worked. He made the putts he was supposed to and a few you wouldn’t expect, highlighted by a 40-footer for the eagle at the par-5 14th. Equally important, he felt good with the rolls not falling off.
“Yeah, that was great. It was the best I’ve done in a very long time,” Thomas said. “Every putt I hit was exactly where I wanted, at the speed I wanted. It felt nice. I hadn’t felt that in a while.”
Now anyone at that level can drop in on a decent day of putting. Replicating this performance over four rounds is a different rodeo. But it’s a problem for tomorrow and Saturday and Sunday.
On Thursday, Thomas finally got the answer to a problem he couldn’t solve. And that could be a problem for the rest of the field.