Thomas exceeds high expectations with FedExCup
September 24, 2017
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Justin Thomas' extended highlights | Round 4 | TOUR Championship
ATLANTA – The season finally complete, the FedExCup trophy sitting beside him, Justin Thomas could finally reveal the goals that had driven him this season.
He pulled out his cell phone and read the 13 items listed under “16-17 goals.” Some of the benchmarks were about technical aspects of his game, while others focused on tournament results. He exceeded all of the latter with an impressive season that featured five wins.
The checklist in his iPhone’s Notes app showed that Thomas wanted to win at least one tournament this season, play in the final two groups of a major, win one of the four majors, qualify for the TOUR Championship and make his first Presidents Cup team. He did all of those.
Sunday’s achievement, winning the FedExCup, wasn’t on the list. Not because the season-long race wasn’t important to him, but because he recognized the difficulty of the task.
“One week versus an entire year is tough,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of great players out here. … If someone said, ‘You may not win one of these for eight years,’ it would (stink) but I could see it.”
He doesn’t have to worry about that. He was the PGA TOUR’s best player from start to finish, and he confirmed that by winning the FedExCup.
Most importantly, Thomas established himself as a closer. That’s a title that can be harder to earn than the FedExCup.
All five of Thomas’ wins this season were by two or more shots, including three three-shot victories and a seven-shot win at the Sony Open in Hawaii. He broke 70 in the final round of all five of his victories, shooting 64, 69, 65, 68 and 66.
“You just have to want to be there,” Thomas said. “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I just enjoy that rush, the goosebumps you get.”
Justin Thomas' news conference after winning the FedExCup
Thomas fell one shot short of Xander Schauffele on Sunday at the TOUR Championship, but birdies on the 70th and 71st holes clinched the FedExCup. If Thomas didn’t birdie two of the last three holes, he was at risk of losing the larger prize to Jordan Spieth. That’s why his FedExCup victory, even if it came after he fell short in the season finale, was another example of Thomas’ clutch play this season.
“The guys know if they’ve got it inside,” said Jim “Bones” Mackay, the longtime caddie for Phil Mickelson who now works as an NBC commentator. “Phil said to me very early on in his career, ‘Hey man, I’m going to win a lot of tournaments.’ I don’t think that’s something that you’re necessarily going to hear a ton out here, (but) Phil knew that he had ‘it.’”
Thomas has shown a similar confidence on Sundays this season.
His success started in his second event of the season, the CIMB Classic, where a year earlier he’d won his lone PGA TOUR title. This time, he started the final round in second place, four shots behind leader Anirban Lahiri. Thomas shot a final-round 64 to earn his second PGA TOUR victory. Birdies at Nos. 16 and 17 gave him a three-shot win over Hideki Matsuyama.
Thomas, who’d struggled during the final holes of his first win, said he felt “extremely comfortable” this time. It was a harbinger of things to come.
Two starts later, he took a two-shot lead over Matsuyama into the final round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Thomas birdied the final two holes at Kapalua for a three-shot victory.
He was dominant one week later in Honolulu, putting on a record-setting performance in the Sony Open in Hawaii. Playing alongside Spieth, he shot a 59 in the first round, becoming the youngest player to do so. A final-round 65 gave him a seven-shot win and the lowest 72-hole score in TOUR history, 253.
During those two weeks in Hawaii, Thomas displayed a “a tenacity, a confidence that it takes experience in order to build and to have,” said Spieth. “I really saw it at Sony. He was out in front of the field and really just kept himself out there.”
With wins in three of his first five events, Thomas took a large lead in the FedExCup. With 1,614 points, he was 437 points ahead of Matsuyama and 860 ahead of Pat Perez, who was in third place.
“After the Sony is when I felt like it had the chance (to be a special season) because of the three different ways that I won,” Thomas said. “I was able to experience three things that I hadn’t experienced before.”
His season hit a lull as he had to cope with the new demands that come when your career enters a new stratosphere, though.
“I think it just threw me off a little bit,” Thomas said. “It set some expectations a little higher for me.”
He was winless over his next 15 starts, with more missed cuts (six) than top-10s (four) in that span. He had fallen to fourth in the FedExCup standings when he arrived at Quail Hollow for the PGA Championship.
Victory didn’t seem likely after a first-round 73, but he closed with three consecutive rounds in the 60s (66-69-68) for a two-shot victory. He said his third round may have been the most important of the week because he was able to grind out a score on a day when his swing was off. He exhibited the patience that was missing earlier in his career.
“What he did there shows that he has that confidence no matter what the stage is, no matter where it is,” Spieth said.
Thomas chipped in on the 13th hole, then made birdie at Quail Hollow’s difficult par-3 17th to all but end the tournament. He showed little emotion as he hit a 7-iron more than 200 yards onto a green encircled by water, then made the 15-foot birdie putt. Mackay called the tee shot “arguably the shot of the year.”
“I thought that was a real show-stopper,” Mackay said, “and it spoke volumes for how tough and just great that guy is.”
The final victory of the season came at the second event of the FedExCup Playoffs, the Dell Technologies Championship, where Thomas held off Spieth with a final-round 66.
Thomas had won once in 58 starts over his first two seasons, falling short several times on Sunday. Not this season.
Justin Thomas: Movie Star
Jay Seawell, Thomas’ college coach at Alabama, drove to East Lake on Sunday to watch Thomas play his final round of the season. He remembered watching Thomas shoot a 30 on the final nine to win his collegiate debut.
“He loves to win. Yeah he’s nervous, but this is what he loves. It’s a gift. His gift is that he loves this moment,” Seawell said. “His greatest attribute is that he wants to win. If something gets in the way of that, if it’s him or a shot or a lack of being able to do something, he always will adjust and get better at that.”
He did, allowing him to accomplish goals that even he couldn’t imagine.