Justin Thomas gives a lesson in how to get the job done
US golfer grinds out third win of the season despite having off-day with the driver
Justin Thomas after winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club on Sunday. Photograph: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
In the white heat of battle players try to stay in their own little world – the zone. Yet, Rory McIlroy – still seeking to get all facets of his game to click at the one time – couldn’t ignore how Justin Thomas went about his business in lifting the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club on Sunday, where the younger man provided a lesson in how to get a job done.
Thomas’s third win of the season, but first since the Honda Classic in February, was achieved with a doggedly stubborn streak of grinding out a victory.
“I’m just in a great place mentally right now, I was so patient and calm all week,” said the 25-year-old American, who heads into the 100th US PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St Louis, Missouri, snapping at the heels of world number one Dustin Johnson.
Indeed, Thomas has moved into new territory in terms of where he is headed and what he can achieve in the sport. He won five times last season, including that breakthrough Major title in the PGA, and added a further $10 million bonus when he won the FedEx Cup and was named “Player of the Year” on the PGA Tour.
His win in Akron has placed him in position to become the first player since Tiger Woods to win back-to-back Player of the Year accolades.
“Seeing the way he plays, you can tell that’s where his expectations lie and where his mentality lies. He’s a very chill, loves-to-have-fun kind of guy, enjoys other people’s company but a very fierce competitor,” observed Zach Johnson, a two-time Major champion, of what makes Thomas tick.
Thomas showed a different side to his game at Akron, where – despite an off-day with the driver – he grinded a score that saw him get the deal done. In contrast, McIlroy, who admittedly smacked a 420-yard drive down the middle of the Par 5 16th, the longest of the final round, only hit four of 14 fairways in a disappointing final round 73 that saw him slip to a tied-sixth finish.
For Thomas – who closed with a 69 for a 15-under-par 265, four shots clear of runner-up Kyle Stanley – the win was the perfect preparation for his defence of the Wanamaker Trophy which he won at Quail Hollow a year ago, and he pinpointed a team meeting, with others including his veteran caddie Jimmy Johnson, last Tuesday as key to how he played in Akron.
“I think I was just able to get a lot off of my chest that I felt that I needed to or I wanted to, and I think Jimmy was able to do the same and that’s something that I stressed to him. It’s no hard feelings in this relationship. We’re both in this for the same reason. We want me and him to perform the best that we can. So for that to happen we need to be honest with each other, and brutally honest at times. Not that we were on Tuesday, but we were just able to kind of let some things out that we felt that we needed to,” recalled Thomas.
As it happened, Thomas admitted to his caddie that he felt “nervous” in the final round and leaned on his veteran bagman for support as he “plotted a way” around the course.
McIlroy had a close-up view of it all, playing alongside Thomas in the final pairing. However, the Northern Irishman – who had started out in a share of second – struggled with his driving and his approach shots, finding only seven of 18 greens in regulation.
McIlroy ranked first in driving accuracy in Saturday’s third round but slipped to 60th in the field in the final round, and will need to rid such inconsistency if he is to claim a fifth career Major at the PGA.
Somewhat ironically, McIlroy had touched on the subject ahead of the final round. “You’re swing is never going to be exactly the same from one day to the next, but if you can keep it as consistent as possible that will hopefully produce the best results.”
McIlroy is one of four Irish players in the field at Bellerive, along with Padraig Harrington, a winner of the PGA back in 2008, Shane Lowry and Paul Dunne.