Justin Thomas speaks his mind
The reigning FedExCup champ weighs in on social media, the class of 2011, and his own expectations for 2018
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
A five-win season. The FedExCup title. His first major victory. PGA TOUR Player of the Year. A member of the dominant U.S. Team at the Presidents Cup. Oh, and a round of 59. It was an incredible run for Justin Thomas in 2017. But the calendar has turned to 2018 and now the golf world wonders how JT will back it up. He’s already provided one answer, winning THE CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES in his second start of the 2017-18 wraparound season.
He’ll now spend the first two weeks of 2018 as the defending champ, hoping to duplicate last year’s two-win start in Hawaii. The target is firmly on his back now. It’s no longer about breaking through for Thomas; it’s now about sustainability and growth. No doubt there will be ups and downs – and no doubt Thomas is ready for the challenge.
PGATOUR.COM recently spent time with the 24-year-old native of Kentucky to get his thoughts on a number of topics.
Review and preview
REFLECTING ON 2017. “It's not anything you kind of go into the year expecting to win a certain amount of times or win my first major or do this or that, but I felt like I had that in me. I was capable of doing it and it was nice to see all the hard work that everyone on my team had been doing pay off.
“It never really felt like anything during. Obviously, I was excited and happy, but it wasn't like I was going home and celebrating a lot or I was like taking it all in. I didn't expect it -- it just was kind of like happening. I think that's what's weird about golf is so often when something good happens, you leave the next day or you leave that night and go get ready for the next event. The start of the year in general was great (winning the Sentry Tournament of Champions and Sony Open back-to-back) and it was kind of a springboard to the year.”
MOST IMPORTANT SHOT. “The 7‑iron at the PGA Championship was big, but I just as easily could have hit the green or hit it right of the green, got up‑and‑down and made par and I still win. So the 8‑iron I hit at Kapalua last year was huge because I had a five‑shot lead with five to go, and then Hideki eagles 14 and I make par and then I make double with a 5‑iron in my hand on 15, and all of a sudden we're tied with three to go. We're still tied with two to go, and I hit that 8‑iron in there to about 3 feet and he hits it to 30 feet and three‑putts. If I lose that tournament, that would have killed me -- the fact that I gave up a five‑stroke lead with five holes to go. When you lose a tournament like that, it can kind of stick with you or can hurt, obviously, and that one could have been tough, so I feel like that was a pretty big shot for me.”
RESTED AND HUNGRY. “Playing golf and competing to win is something I've dreamed of doing since I was a little kid. To do it now is a blast but at the same time, when you do win, it just takes so much out of you. It was such a crazy end of the year from the PGA Championship to the TOUR Championship in Atlanta, and I was in contention so often, and a lot of, not stress, but just a lot of emotions and it caught up to me. I was to the point where if I went out to practice, it was not going to be productive because I didn't want to. I had no desire to.
“But I've been working out really hard just to try to get my body in the best shape to make sure that I'm continuing to play injury-free and no little things come up. And when I kind of get going in there with my trainer, Kolby, I get hungry.”
That trainer is golf performance specialist Kolby Tullier. They work together at the Joey D Golf Sports Training Center in Jupiter, Florida. Several other local TOUR pros also work out there, including Dustin Johnson, the world’s top-ranked player. Thomas is currently No. 3, just behind his good friend Jordan Spieth.
BANNER CHASING. “They do a cool thing in our gym where they hang out banners for every time their students win. I remember last year, DJ had about 12 up there and I'm looking up at the wall and I have nothing, and I'm like, ‘This sucks, I've got to get something up there.’
“It's funny, and honestly childish as it is, it's kind of motivating. You go in there and you see DJ No. 1 in the world and winning all these tournaments, and I'm like, man, I kind of want to be doing that. It was a solid end to the season, so I have a couple banners up there now.”
EXPECTATIONS REMAIN HIGH. “All I'm trying to do is just play every tournament I'm at the best I can. I'm not in any way comparing to last year because I know there's a chance that I don't do what I did last year, and there's also a chance that I have a better year than I had last year. That's the thing, you never know what's going to happen, and you don't know what person is going to come out, what Justin Thomas is going to be every week. Hopefully it's great more often than not, but in reality, that's not how golf works.
“I think the hardest part is going to be staying in the moment and recognizing that it's a new year. It's a new opportunity for great things and I just need to continue to work hard. I'm not going into this year thinking I have to win five times and a major and Player of the Year and FedExCup for it to be a great year. That would be a great year, but I'm just putting all expectations aside from what people are going to have of me, what I may have of myself.
“I think it's pretty obvious my expectations are high and I expect a lot of myself, but a lot more goes into it. I had the stretch last year where I didn't finish very well, but I thought I was playing better than the results were showing. A couple years ago, I probably would have lost my cool and just gotten impatient. Instead I stayed patient and I rolled off maybe the best month of golf I ever played starting with the PGA and in to the FedExCup Playoffs. So without that patience I wouldn't have had that, so I just have to continue to keep that patience this year whatever may happen.”
MANAGING EXTERNAL PRESSURES. “It's hard because of the media and the expectations they have for you and the expectations fans and people have for you. I care a lot about the fans and about the media, but in reality, I also can’t care too much. I'm playing for myself and I'm playing for my team, and I want to be a good person and role model for them, but in terms of my golf, I'm doing that for me, and if it doesn't meet the standards of media or fans, then it doesn't. That's kind of out of my control.
“The thing about golf is every player no matter how good they are, even the greatest, have had what you could say are slumps at times. The goal is just to minimize those slumps and make the golf as good as possible during those. So instead of missing cuts and finishing 50th - turn those into 25th’s somehow. That's kind of the biggest thing for me right now that I'm trying to get better at.”
Family and society
Thomas’ father Mike is the head pro at Harmony Landing just outside Louisville, Kentucky, and a former board member of the PGA of America. Thomas’ grandfather Paul was a PGA member for 60 years. It was a special, emotional moment when Mike saw Justin raised the Wanamaker Trophy after claiming the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow.
FAVORITE CHILDHOOD MOMENT. “My first hole‑in‑one. People always ask about me beating dad, but neither my dad nor myself can remember the first time that I did that. The hole-in-one -- that's kind of cliché, and we've had a great time and great fun in games and trips with the guys and with family, but the ace is pretty hard to beat. It was the 16th hole at my home course, Harmony Landing, where my dad is a pro. It's 144 yards and I was 6 years old. I'd never reached the hole in my life. It was like the only hole on the course I could reach in regulation, and I never reached it before, and first time I reached the green, I made a hole‑in‑one, so it's pretty cool. I think I just kind of put my arms up. I can picture the shot. It was a front right pin, it landed just short of the green, kind of went up and went down and went in.”
Like most people his age, Thomas is active on social media. As of mid-December, he had 213,000 Twitter followers. But he’s not sure if it’s worth it.
DEALING WITH SOCIAL MEDIA. “It's funny you ask that. I literally just said to my dad earlier today that I was thinking about deleting my Twitter because it's so ridiculous now. Sometimes you just can't hear anything positive about anything in the world anymore. We're all so lucky to have what we have -- and there's a lot of things that are wrong in this world -- but it's like a person can't go play golf with this person or you can't mention this person without everyone ragging on you. I just don't understand it. It’s true the social media aspect is important for us growing our brands, but it's just unbelievable the stuff that some people think is OK to say. I try not to read it much anymore because it's pretty much useless. I do enjoy using Instagram because it's just pictures, and I can read a picture pretty well.
“In saying that, for me social media is a great way to interact with fans and kind of show them who I am. I like the Q&As. I try to do those every once in a while, on a travel day or when I'm flying. I just feel like it's a good way for fans to get to ask me questions where I'll answer as many as I can and just make a way for them to get to know me more. They know I'm a golfer, they know the simple things about me that everyone knows, but without me kind of portraying my personality through social media or through interviews or whatever it may be, then they really wouldn't know who I am, and that's kind of how I want to connect with them.”
IMPACT ON HIS PARENTS. “They're the ones that take it personally, and they're like, well, you'll understand when you have a child. And it's like, OK, well, great, but at this point I don't, and you need to get over it because it's not going to change. I tell them it's only going to get worse. The better I play, the worse it's going to get because there's going to be more people watching me, and everything I do. I'm more worried for them, I'm not worried about me. I see some of it, and I shrug it off, but it's them I'm really trying to get off of it.”
After winning the FedExCup title at East Lake, Thomas used the post-tournament news conference to famously share the goals he had set for the 2016-17 season – goals he had previously kept hidden from public view. He even allowed media members to take photos of his phone screen that showed whether he had achieved the 15 goals on his list. Twelve of those goals had a green checkmark next to them – including the goal of winning a major.
SETTING 2017-18 GOALS. “Yeah, I've set them just like I do every year and I will continue to not share them all with everybody. But basically, I’m just going to try to continue to get better at what I wasn't as good at or wasn't as good as what I felt like I could have been at last year. I just need to continue to work on those aspects so that my bad weeks are better because I know my good weeks are good enough to win. It's just the bad weeks -- that's what I need to improve on. There's a lot of people out there that are working to have a Player of the Year-type year, and I know that I need to continue to work hard if I want to do that again.”
STATS-DRIVEN GOALS. “I look at stats a lot. It's an easy way to tell what you're good at or what you need to improve on. I look at them for that reason. Driving distance obviously is nice, but I would love to start hitting more fairways -- and that's something I've really been working hard on. I think I did a great job the last third of the season and I feel like that's why I played as well as I did.
“Inside 10-feet putting is something I really want to get better at this year. I wanted to get better at outside 10-feet least last year and I did, but because of that, my inside 10-feet struggled. That means I just have to put in a little bit more work.”
PRIVATE ACCOUNTABILITY. “I do get held accountable, but I get held accountable within my team. My dad, Jimmy Johnson (caddy), Matt Killen (coach), everybody sets their own set of goals for the year and we share them with each other. So, if I don't think Jimmy is doing something that I think he should be doing for us to achieve our goals, I'm going to tell him. Same with my dad or Matt or if I'm not doing something they tell me.
“I just don't tell them to the media or other people because then I'm constantly going to get reminded of them if I haven't achieved something. Last year, ‘win a major’ was on there and going into the PGA Championship, I would have been getting reminded -- well, you haven't won a major yet and that's a goal of yours. So, it's not like they’re anything crazy. I'm sure a lot of people could figure out some of them, but it's just not necessary to tell them.”
Class of 2011
Thomas is among the high school graduating class of 2011 that is now flexing its muscle on the PGA TOUR. It starts with the two FedExCup champions/major winners, Spieth and Thomas, and also includes reigning TOUR Championship winner Xander Schauffele, 2017 Presidents Cup players Daniel Berger and Emiliano Grillo, and a handful of other pros with big potential.
QUICK SUCCESS ON A LARGE SCALE. “None of us expected our success to be exactly what it is. We knew and probably expected that we were going to be one of the greatest classes ever, but in terms of results and the majors and the tournaments we've won and the Presidents Cup already, probably not so fast. We wouldn't have said that. But in terms of if you would have asked us, do you think you'll be successful as one of the best classes -- I'm sure we all would have said yes.”
YOUNG AND FEARLESS. “I just think the TOUR is so deep right now that it's so hard to dominate. It's so hard to go out and win 10, 11 times in a season that it's not like there's that one person to be intimidated of. There's obviously guys that are intimidating for younger guys, but there's a handful of or us seemingly always playing well also. It's not like when people tee it up in a tournament, they are saying “Oh, man, I'm really watching out for DJ this week,” because I know I can beat him. He has his off-weeks.
“It might have been different when Tiger played at his peak. I'm sure if all of us, Jordan, Berger, myself, Ollie, Patrick, and all the 2011 guys came out here when he was like he was, I'm sure it would have been like that. But in saying that, we've won at every level we've played at. We've been successful at every level we've played at, so we kind of felt like why stop there.”
Thomas was asked for a quick thought on his fellow 2011 classmates. He obliged.
JORDAN SPIETH. “Jordan is a hell of a player. He's got just an unbelievable short game and hands around the greens. He's always been that way, and now he has ball‑striking as great as it is -- it’s a pretty big weapon.”
XANDER SCHAUFFELE. “I never played with him until Malaysia this year, and I was beyond impressed with every part of his game. He hits it really far, really high. He's got a great short game, great putting, as well, and he's a great kid, too.”
PATRICK RODGERS. “Patrick is extremely strong. He was one of my best friends in junior and amateur golf. I think he's maybe struggling a little bit with our success in terms of expectations from everybody else, but I think once he wins, he’ll be ready to keep going.”
EMILIANO GRILLO. “Grillo is a beauty. I love Emiliano. Boy, he can put on a driving clinic. Just hits it so straight, so consistent, and the weekends he's putting well, he's going to be in contention.”
OLLIE SCHNIEDERJANS. “It's cool because he kind of does things his own way. Doesn't have an instructor, and he just goes about his business. He's very impressive. He just smashes it. He can hit it so far and so hard, and he's one of those guys when he gets going, he's fearless and kind of just hammers on the gas pedal.”
DANIEL BERGER. “He is one of a kind. He obviously does it his own way. He's got a funky swing but he's fearless. He's a good driver of the golf ball, which I think is underrated about his game. When he's driving it well, he hits it long and straight, and he seems to play well when he gets around the hunt, which is obviously important.”
C.T. PAN. “Pan is a good dude. He's really solid. Felt like he played in a million U.S. Juniors and U.S. Amateurs for how many times he qualified. I really enjoyed playing against him. I think he won maybe the Western Am the year I played, and he'll be one of those guys that I feel like could play out here for a long time and just kind of go under the radar.”
MICHAEL KIM. “One to watch now he's getting stronger to where he's hitting the ball farther, and he has such a beautiful putting stroke. I think the last two years he's kind of gotten comfortable being out here, so I think this year is a year that he'll be able to take advantage of some of those courses that fit his eye.”
CLASS OF 2011’S EVENTUAL LEGACY? “I think it's obvious we're going to win a lot of tournaments and a lot of majors and do a lot of great things, but you just never know anything exact. I hope that we're known as the best high school graduating class ever.”