News & Opinion

After banner year, Thomas hungers for more

Justin Thomas didn’t start last season shooting for the stars, exactly. More like a blank spot on a workout-room wall.

At one point roughly a year ago, Thomas took a break from pumping iron to eyeball the partition at his gym in southeast Florida, a facility that is used by several prominent PGA Tour players in the area.

The gym, located in Jupiter, featured an out-of-this-world array of banners festooning the wall to commemorate the victories of Dustin Johnson, a client and the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer. Reigning U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka also works out at the same Tour-friendly sweat shop. 

As the 2016-17 season began, Thomas had claimed only one Tour victory, at a short-field event several time zones away in Malaysia. The wall perhaps needed less D.J. – or at the very least, more J.T. 

“I remember D.J. had about 12 up there, and I'm looking up at the wall and I have nothing,” Thomas said Monday. “I'm like, This sucks. I've got to get something up there.”

Before the 2016-17 season ended, Thomas, 24, had amassed five victories, including his first major title, the PGA Championship, fired a 59 in competition and claimed the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus. Players voted him the tour’s top player.

Banner year, indeed.

“It was a solid end to the season, so I have a couple banners up there [now],” he said. “It's funny, and honestly, childish as it is, it's kind of motivating.” 

In fact, looking ahead to his title defense at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which starts Jan. 4 at Kapalua Resort on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Thomas said one of the biggest barriers to a similar performance might be an urge to compare and contrast.

His biggest challenge might lie between his ears.

“Probably, honestly, just kind of just comparing,” he said. “I think that as the year goes on, trying not to compare this year to last year – say, halfway through the year, for some reason if I haven't won yet or I haven't played well, or even if I have played well just not as well, because I know I'm constantly going to get reminded of what I did last year versus this year, and whether it's better or whether it's worse.”

He’s right, of course, especially because his season qualifies as historic in many respects. Want to win a few bar bets? Ask your buddies to identify the players who have led the PGA Tour in single-season victories with five or more wins, starting with the 1981 season. Last season, Thomas joined a list of luminaries with Tiger Woods, Nick Price, Vijay Singh, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth.

As a cautionary note, Day won five times in 2015 and went winless last year.

“I think the hardest part is going to be staying in the moment and recognizing that it's a new year,” Thomas said. “It's a new opportunity for great things, and I just need to continue to work hard.”

We like his chances. As the son of a club pro, Thomas isn’t likely to get sidetracked by the bright lights, police blotters or Ferrari showrooms. Without his golf cap and white leather belt, the slightly-built Thomas looks like just another dude.

It turns out, apart from his golf gifts, that’s not far from the truth. He’s at an age at which golf is the center of nearly everything.

“I don't have any hobbies,” he said. “I'm terrible. I sit on the couch all day, and I'll maybe swim in the pool or something.”

Despite how that sounds, he hasn’t slipped into cruise control. Thomas has been slinging around serious iron in the offseason and has added 15 pounds of muscle, raising his overall body weight to about 165 pounds, he said. Thomas already is one of the longest hitters in the sport, so that news ought to send shivers through Tour locker rooms.

Not that he allowed himself much of an offseason. Thomas played in 24 events in calendar year 2017, second only to Jon Rahm among players in the top eight of the Official World Golf Ranking. Rahm, however, is a member of the European Tour, and made 26 starts.

Thomas acknowledged being burned out by season’s end in the fall as he came up short in his title defense in Malaysia and won a new tournament in South Korea. Still, the budding superstar is not planning on any major cutbacks in his travel itinerary.

“I may take off an event here or there, but overall, it hasn't been tempting,” he said. 

He conceded that he hadn’t practiced much when he showed up in the Bahamas two weeks ago to play in the 18-man Hero World Challenge, in which he finished a forgettable 11th – one shot behind the tournament host, Tiger Woods, who had completed only three tournament rounds all year. 

Thomas had never played a competitive round with Woods, the longtime world No. 1, but was paired two rounds with Woods, who might be another barrier to matching last season’s output.

“I've spent some time around him the last couple years,” Thomas said, “and I've never seen him happier with life, with everything.”

Maybe it’s a testament to his age or unusually high competitive juices, but Thomas is raring to defend his title at Kapalua, his busy fall notwithstanding. Competitive cabin fever already has set in.

“It's been a nice off-season,” he said. “But over the last week or so, I've been starting to get a little hungry and ready to get back out there.” 

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling