Is Justin Thomas for real?

by Sal Johnson

Founder, Chief Data Officer, GOLFstats

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We run into this a couple of times a year, a youngster goes crazy, wins a tournament or two and all of a sudden you think he’s the next coming of Tiger Woods. Yes, what Justin Thomas did the last couple of months is amazing. In five starts Thomas has won three times and been in the top-ten, four times. It’s just mid-January, and already Thomas has won $3.8 million, a bit over $100,000 more than Arnold Palmer and Gary Player earned in their combined career earnings on the PGA Tour. Two weeks ago when I was looking to see who would be the stars of 2017, I looked at Thomas first two years on tour and saw some comments on how Thomas has been very patient, realizing how close his game was to breaking out. Too bad that I didn’t listen to myself, because Thomas has broken out.
It took a sad thing to get Thomas going. Thomas was 25th in Ryder Cup points but felt he had a good chance of getting one of Davis Love III four wildcard picks. Even after finishing T-6th at the Tour Championship, Thomas thought he had a great chance, but the four captains picks went to Rickie Fowler, J.B. Holmes, Matt Kuchar, then the last one to Ryan Moore. It was a big disappointment for Thomas, so much that he worked hard with his dad Mike, his swing coach and Matt Killen his putting coach. They identified areas of his game that needed improvement, among them putting (131st on Tour last season in strokes gained-putting), scrambling (151st) and approaches from 75-100 yards (156th). He also ranked 167th in driving accuracy but will still trade distance for accuracy. Most of all Thomas worked on something that wasn’t a strong suit for him and that was patience and trying to be more consistent.
Have to say after his win at the Sony Open he has accomplished those goals because the last two weeks of golf in Hawaii have probably been the best two weeks anyone has ever had (other than Tiger Woods who was good week in and week out).
Here is a list of things that Thomas has accomplished in the last two weeks:

  • Played the last two weeks in 49 under par with 4 eagles, 51 birdies, 8 bogeys and 1 double bogey.
    Broke 70 all eight rounds and shot 67 or under seven of the eight rounds.
    Shot the 8th sub-60 score in the history of the PGA Tour with his first round 59 at the Sony Open, becoming the youngest player to shot under 60.
    His 253 score at the Sony is the new PGA Tour record for 72 holes, break the 254 record set by Tommy Armour III at the 2003 Valero Texas Open.
    His 188 54 hole score ties the PGA Tour record held by Steve Stricker at the 2010 John Deere Classic.
    His 123 36 hole score is the lowest first 36 holes on the PGA Tour beating the total of 124 held by three different players.
    Becomes only the third player since 1970 that shot 4 rounds of 65 and under in a single tournament (Donnie Hammond, 1989 Valero Texas Open & Tommy Armour III, 2003 Valero Texas Open).
    Becomes only the second player to win the Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open in the same year, joining Ernie Els who did it in 2003.

The big question for fantasy golf players, could Thomas do the same things that Tiger Woods did and that is always competing for titles every week he tees it up?
That question is hard to answer because if you look at Thomas 4 wins, they have come on tropical courses that are near oceans and the greens are not fast like you see in majors and other marquee events. Thomas has played in six majors and only has one top-25 finish, a T-18th in the 2015 PGA Championship. The same results in WGC events, in his five starts only one top-25 finish, a T-13th in this year’s WGC-HSBC Champions. The same in FedEx Cup events, he has played in seven of them and has just two top-10s, a T-10th at the 2016 Barclays and T-6th at the Tour Championship. Last, but not least he does have a T-3rd at last year’s Players Championship.
Still if you look at Tiger’s record, it took him turning pro before he turned it on and accomplished so much. Could Justin have found more than pixie dust but found a swing that works, allowing him to hit it a long way and straight, even though he is just 5’10” and weighs 145 pounds. That along with hitting lot’s of greens and putting well is what has accomplished this magic. So Thomas has shown us some remarkable golf, but the question will be if he can repeat this week in and week out just like Tiger did. We saw a touch of this in 2015 when Jordan Spieth came out and rolled over the PGA Tour. But he did slip a bit in 2016 but has realized his problems and hopes to fix it for this year. Same with Rory McIlroy, he’s had some great streaks but still isn’t consistent in ever start.
NBC Sports and Golf Channel Mark Rolfing has a very good eye for talent and he thinks that Thomas will be great. He sees a more mature Justin Thomas, at Kapalua last week. While other pros were on the beach and enjoying Hawaii, Rolfing said Thomas was practicing on the range and putting greens which impressed on him. Guess it paid off. But the big question will be, what happens when Thomas comes back on tour at Phoenix next week. Will he be able to still keep up the pace and lap the field there? For years Johnny Miller seemed like the greatest player in the world when he notoriously won just about every time he started in a west coast swing, but we never heard much from Miller after that. So time will tell if Thomas is really the next Tiger Woods, or a player that we have to think of in every tournament, even though he won’t win it.
Does the Tour need to toughen Waialae for the next Sony Open?
So what happened at Waialae last week? Not only did a 59 get shot but Kevin Kisner shot 60 in the third round, two players shot 61 and two others shot 62. Of those that finished 72 holes only one player was under par, Ken Duke was even par. The scoring average was 68.31 for the week, still that’s not bad, but the scoring was just low. There are two reasons for this, first lack of wind. Since it was calm all week that is the number one reason for low scores. The second thing is rough, it wasn’t that high and thick like past years. Showing how easy the rough is, Thomas missed 31 fairways but made two eagles and nine birdies on holes that he missed the fairway on. If pros are able to get in good lie in the rough, which Thomas was able to get then they are going to make lots of birdies. So the club has to grow really thick, impossible rough like they have had in past years. If not then your going to see a lot more 59s and even a 58 shot on this course.
Waialae has been a part of this tournament since day one in 1965. The players not only love the course, but love staying at he Kahala Hotel which is next to the 10th fairway. It’s one of the greatest hotels with a great beach and dolphin filled lagoons. Players won’t allow the tour to move and if it did, a lot of marquee players wouldn’t attend.
So it will be interesting to see what happens. When 59s are shot on a golf course, it catches the attention of the folks in charge who try to make sure it won’t happen again.

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