Rory McIlroy was holding court with the media on the Tuesday of this year’s USPGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean course, the session running over its allotted time, when Justin Thomas appeared at the back of the room. He was up next for his pre-tournament interview. The final question to McIlroy, meanwhile, was about the significance of his own 2012 USPGA victory, the second Major triumph of his career. The Northern Irishman decided to have a little fun. “It was huge,” he said, looking at Thomas. “A lot of guys have won one Major, but it’s a big hurdle to get to the second. It was good to get that monkey off my back. I definitely didn’t want to be stuck on one for a long time, so happy to get that second.” Thomas, whose lone Major win came at the 2017 USPGA, could only muster a couple of words in response to the playful jab. “Well played,” he said, shaking his head.
The two exchanged a hug and McIlroy, who has four career Majors, moved on, while Thomas eventually offered a rebuttal, as much as he could anyway. “I can’t really say too much,” he said, “other than it’s great to see him win. I know it’s been a really long time for him, so I’m glad to see him win.” Thomas’ own mischievous dig was in reference to McIlroy’s victory at the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks earlier. At the time, it was the Ulsterman’s first since November 2019, while Thomas had won three times during that span, including the 2021 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
Yet as Thomas, who has 14 career wins on the PGA Tour, heads into 2022, questions abound – chief among them being when the highly talented 28-year-old American will get that aforementioned monkey off his back and win a second career Major?
He certainly didn’t come close in 2021. In 23 worldwide starts this year, Thomas’ lone title came at the Players, where he hit 17 of 18 greens en route to a stellar closing 64. The final-round performance was as impressive as it was rare, though. Thomas had just five other top-tens all year, which included a tie for third in the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba in November, where he was in contention for three rounds but managed a ho-hum 69 on the last day – tying for the highest score among those in the top ten – on his way to finishing five strokes back of winner Viktor Hovland.
“I would say it has not been a very good year at all,” Thomas said. “I definitely haven’t closed out as many tournaments. I’ve had some good finishes, but I feel like I should have won more than once and played a lot better in the Majors.”
No. 1 in the world just a year ago, one of the game’s longest hitters and a supremely gifted iron player (Thomas ranked in the top four in Strokes Gained: Approach four straight years from 2018 to 2021), expectations, self and otherwise, are high. But his play in the biggest tournaments in 2021 – aside from the Players – could largely be classified as disappointing. His best result in the Majors was a tie for 19th in the US Open at Torrey Pines. Meanwhile, he finished T21 at The Masters, missed the cut at the USPGA and tied for 40th in The Open Championship at Royal St George’s. “C at best, maybe C-minus,” Thomas said recently when asked what grade he’d give his season.
“I’m one or two tournaments away from being in the top two or three again,” he continued. “It’s all about runs out here. [No. 1-ranked Jon Rahm] has been on an unbelievable run, DJ [Dustin Johnson] got on an unbelievable run, Brooks [Koepka] was on one, Collin [Morikawa] has been on one.”
Passage to the top
Thomas, of course, knows something about going on a run, too – beginning with the ascension at the start of his career that saw him quickly become one of the best players on the planet. Even that took a bit of patience, though, something that is admittedly not one of Thomas’ strong suits.
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