The Open 2023: Justin Thomas decided to solve the recent matches

Paolo UggettiESPNJul 21, 2023, 03:50 PM ET9 minutes of reading

Justin Thomas admits he is ‘concerned’ about Ryder Cup berth

After missing his third major cut this season at The Open, Justin Thomas admits he is worried about making the 2023 US Ryder Cup team.

HOYLAKE, England — Justin Thomas tries to solve an impossible riddle. He knows it, but he still asks the question, still wonders aloud if there is an answer to why he can go from hitting a shot fit for the best player in the world to hitting the next one in a way unbecoming of anyone who calls himself a professional golfer.

Thomas knows that golf is not a game to be mastered by a method or solved with an equation. One moment it’s there, the next it’s gone. One shot and you’re the best. Two shots and you’re suddenly the worst. How? Searching for an explanation might provide an answer, but it only lasts until another question pops up.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Thomas said Friday. “There’s nobody who shot 82 that hit some of the quality shots I made yesterday.”

The top of the golf world has suited Thomas well in recent years. Hailed as one of the game’s best ball strikers, he has won two majors. He’s struggled before, but never dealt with anything like this: a second-round 81 at the US Open and a missed cut; a first round 82 in The Open and a missed cut. Both were his worst rounds at the majors of his career.

Thomas admits he makes mistakes reminiscent of himself as a junior golfer over 20 years ago. How he will correct them is the all-important question. It’s one that no one seems to have the answer to — not Thomas’ father and longtime trainer, Mike, who watches every training swing; not his caddy, Jim “Bones” Mackay, who walks with him every step; not even Thomas himself.

Thomas scored a second-round 81 at the US Open in June and a first-round 82 at The Open. It was his career-worst round at the majors.Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

“I don’t know if it’s a focus thing or I’m just putting too much pressure on myself or what it is,” Thomas said. “I try not to focus too much on days like yesterday. I try not to dwell on it … but it’s just a shame when it’s the first round of a major and you have no chance anymore.”

After Thursday’s debacle, Friday’s round became an experiment. With neither the cut line nor the trophy in sight, Thomas tried to find something, something that would carry over and make the trip to Liverpool worthwhile. So it didn’t matter that this was the Open Championship, where links golf requires accuracy and restraint. Thomas had made a decision: He was going to beat his driver all day.

During his second round, the two-time major winner didn’t hold back or let up. As he blazed balls off the tee left and right and yelled “in front” several times, it was hard to call the strategy smart or even take it as a sign of some kind of freedom. It felt more like a combination of having nothing left to lose and trying to figure out where to go from here after back-to-back missed cuts at majors. The result was an impressive even-par round that was 11 shots better than his first, allowing Thomas to preach positivity afterward.

“I used today as a good opportunity to get ready for next week and I felt like I did that,” Thomas said. “I hit a lot of good shots. I just make so many boneheaded mistakes and crazy things happen. I’ll be fine.”

Throughout his round Friday, Thomas embodied golf’s toughest paradox, with lots of good shots followed by bad ones and vice versa. After wayward drives, he would drop his head, hunch over and mime his swing as if trying to repair himself in the process. Still, he struggled, grinding evenly, for pars and bogeys and also found a handful of birdies along the way.

“It’s hard over here, for me, to play too much of a golf swing because it’s so windy and you have to hit so many shots, which I like,” Thomas said. “It kind of gets me out of thinking about the golf swing.”

Thomas’ artistry is one of the most important tenets of his game. He doesn’t distinguish himself by driving it farther than anyone else or by being a better putter. The magic of his game is in the shot-making, bump-and-runs, the carved 7-iron and the tight wedges. Watching him for 18 holes on Friday after his last two big rounds, you could almost tell those shots are still stored on the hard drive in his mind. The struggle is not that they have disappeared. It’s a far crueler reality: right now he can barely conjure them up, if at all.

But even when elite golf feels like a distant, unattainable reality, that magic still pours out, as it did at various times Friday. On the 12th, after his approach came up just short, the low, spinning chip he fired toward the hole found its way to the bottom of the cup. A rare smile appeared.

“I try to look at the big picture,” Thomas said.

Despite his overall performance at Hoylake, Thomas was more resigned than despondent, never angry, just disappointed. As soon as he left each hole, he gave nearby fans high-fives and fist pumps, nodding to the cheers that still followed despite what the leaderboard showed. When he got to almost every tee box, he had to pull a new ball out of his bag and mark it – he had given the one he had used to a child. When asked in his post-round interview if he would come to England to watch Leeds United – the football team he and Jordan Spieth have invested in – Thomas laughed.

“I’d like to,” he said. “But I have to figure this sport out first.”

To get technical for a second, it is difficult to pinpoint what Thomas’ problem actually is. He hits the ball shorter off the tee and has been far less accurate, but his approach game has still been well above average. His putter has been a problem all year, and he tried swapping it for a blade-style putter at one point in the season before going back to his original hammer. On the PGA Tour this year, Thomas is number 152 in strokes gained: putting. Perhaps the struggles on the green have seeped into almost every part of his game. So much so that he has missed four cuts in his last six events and dropped to 20th in the world rankings.

Although Thomas likely won’t qualify on points, Team USA captain Zach Johnson hasn’t ruled out selecting him for a spot on the Ryder Cup team.Jeff Roberson/AP Photo

That’s why the questions about the Ryder Cup are getting louder. Thomas likely won’t qualify on points unless he goes on a tear, which doesn’t feel likely, and although he is roommates with U.S. captain Zach Johnson this week and until recently had been considered a shoo-in, Thomas admitted he is worried about his spot.

“I want to make the Ryder Cup team more than anything,” said Thomas, who has been very successful in the event. “I’m probably trying too hard to do that, honestly.”

As Johnson put it: “The bottom line is this game is really tough. There’s going to be peaks. There’s going to be some valleys. He’s damn good. I might be a little worried, like I said, as a friend, but I’m not worried about him because I know what he does and I know what he’s capable of.”

It’s not just the Ryder Cup. Questions about his father as a coach also grow louder.

“It’s been tough,” Thomas said of the relationship between games. “He feels bad as a coach. He hates it for me as a dad. Neither of us want anything to be bad when it comes to my golf, but we work hard. We try as hard as we can.”

What was clear Friday was that Thomas cares. A lot. Twenty shots off the lead at one point, he was still begging balls in the air to miss bunkers, to get left, down, right or up. He was still hanging on every shot as if he was in contention.

Coaching is questioned in every player’s slump, but it’s a tougher subject for Thomas, whose longtime coach is his father, Mike.Michael Madrid/USA TODAY Sports

As he walked toward the ninth hole, one fan said, “JT looks miserable.”

It only took walking with him all day to realize he wasn’t. Fighting? Yes. Frustrated? Definitely. But miserable? No. He was still playing, wrist taped from “hitting it out of the fescue and bunker so many times,” still hoping to hit the best possible shot on each attempt. He had somehow gotten better.

“We all go through bad patches,” Rory McIlroy said when asked about Thomas. “It’s golf. JT will be just fine. He’s one of the most talented guys out there. He shot 69 at the TPC [Sawgrass] a few years ago in a 40km/h wind and I always remind him of that.”

On the 18th, Thomas found himself back in the bunker where he had made the quadruple bogey on Thursday. This time, however, he came out of it and two-putted for bogey, greeted the crowd before giving away a few more balls and his glove and then walking into a tunnel.

Several times on Friday, Thomas got his eyes fixed on a ranking list. His name was nowhere to be found, but it seemed he wanted to know who was playing well. The past two majors have been as low as he’s ever been, and while there’s certainly always more room below, Thomas has no choice but to believe that Friday was a step forward, that those rankings will soon feature his name again.

“Everybody has their waves, their kind of momentum and rides and rock bottoms,” Thomas said. “I just keep telling myself that this is what I’ll get out of it.”

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