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Justin Thomas determined to return to winner's circle at Valspar Championship

5 Min Read


    Written by Jeff Babineau @JeffBabz62

    Justin Thomas nearly aces No. 17 to set up birdie at Valspar

    PALM HARBOR, Fla. – At the Valspar Championship this week, it is almost as if Justin Thomas has a tranquil angel sitting atop one of his shoulders, and a fidgety devil on the other.

    As one of the game’s most elite players, a former World No. 1, Thomas is a long, long distance from being satisfied with his current world standing at No. 8. (“To be perfectly honest,” Thomas admitted earlier in the week, “it pisses me off where I am in the World Ranking. It just goes to show the level of golf that’s being played.”) Though Thomas has been exhibiting some quality golf of his own, he hasn’t won in a year (2021 PLAYERS). The seasoned competitor inside tells him he must remain patient, it will happen, and yet ...

    “Those two, when you use both of those, I guess, ‘phrases’ in the same sentence, they just don't make sense,” Thomas said on Friday after firing a second consecutive 5-under 66 at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course. ”It's easy to be frustrated with it (his ranking and not winning), but usually when you're frustrated, you force things, or want things to start happening.

    “I haven't been out here a crazy long time, but I've been out here long enough to know that stuff like this happens, and you're going to go on times where things maybe aren't going as well ... the difference of those putts going in don't go in, and some of balls that bounce in the fairway bounce in the bunker. And then when you get on those hot streaks, those 10-month, year-and-a-half, two-year stretches, like I was on in 2017 and 2018, or like D.J. (Dustin Johnson) has been on, (Jon) Rahm's been on, Collin (Morikawa), and those guys, like it happens.”

    Thomas, 28, has put on a nice show thus far at Valspar, taking advantage of softer conditions to register 11 birdies and an eagle through 36 holes. Poor course management at the par-4 seventh (his 16th hole of the day) cost him two shots. Thomas tried to hit a prominent hook from the left rough with a 52-degree wedge around a tree, didn’t hook the shot nearly enough, and finished 35 yards beyond the green – led to a double bogey that robbed him of some momentum. But it was one tiny blip across what had been two very solid days of play. He hit 14 greens in regulation on Thursday, and 13 more on Friday, the kind of ballstriking that should keep him hovering around the lead this weekend.

    “He’s an exceptional ballstriker,” said his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, who traded in a television microphone to return to a caddie gig because of Thomas’s immense talents and potential. “I was telling my wife last night, that as good as I knew he was when I wanted to come and work for him, he’s even better.

    “Yesterday (Thursday) was amazing to watch. He hit all these shots, and the sound the ball was making coming off the iron, even at this level out here, it was amazing.”

    Count Mackay among those who marveled at the second-round 69 that Thomas pieced together a week earlier in windy, difficult conditions at THE PLAYERS Championship. The round was nothing short of artful, with Thomas often taking much more club than usual and creating imaginative shots into winds that gusted to 40 mph. Bubba Watson also played great in that draw, shooting 68, but a good deal of Thomas’s round was carried on television and gained near-universal applause. It is not often that Thomas shoots 3-under and would receive so many pats on the back from fellow players.

    “Some of the people that followed it and watched it understood just how hard it was that day,” he said. “It truly was. I’ve never had a round of golf that was that difficult when the course is that soft ... Hopefully, (it’s) the hardest round I’ll play all year.”

    One of the shots Thomas hit that day on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, with the wind howling at its height, was a knockdown 6-iron into the island 17th, where players often are hitting 9-irons and wedges. As he approached the green at the adjacent 16th, he and Mackay tried not to pay attention to the groans coming from the hole ahead, which was causing water balls and embarrassment to some of the very top players in the game. At the par-4 18th, where Thomas hit a 5-wood that bounded 312 yards off the tee one year earlier, he this time choked down on a 5-wood from 206 yards on his approach and found the putting surface.

    “The guy’s got shots,” Mackay said. “The great thing about it, first round at Palm Springs or last round at the Masters, he’s very comfortable utilizing them all, which, I think, is at another level.”

    With four top-10 finishes in seven starts in 2021-22, Thomas knows his game isn’t very far off from winning, and awaits one of those hot weeks with the putter to perhaps push him across the line. Friday was a good day on the greens. Thomas needed only 25 putts, and got a nice bonus on the 602-yard fifth, where he zig-zagged his way down the hole and seemed to be making a big mess of things.

    Thomas hit 3-wood into the right rough off the tee, then tried to cut a 5-wood back into play – it traveled straight left, onto a cart path. He dropped, muscled a draw from 182 yards around a tree onto a right-side sliver of the green, then managed to hole the birdie putt from 44 feet. Those are the types of things that Thomas has been waiting to see. Already on Friday, he had one-putted nine of his first 10 greens.

    “It looked like a 4 the whole way,” joked Thomas of his bonus birdie at the fifth. “I played the hole pretty much perfectly on Thursday, and made a 5. Maybe that’s the way to go.”

    Two more days of playing as he has, and maybe Thomas will be holding the 15thtrophy of his PGA TOUR career. It would surprise exactly no one. So yes, he has been patient, and yes, he cannot wait to win again. Inside him swirls a somewhat divided camp.

    Which voice will win out, the angel’s or the devil’s?