Reigning US PGA champion Justin Thomas joins Today’s Golfer for an exclusive interview ahead of his title defense at Oak Hill Country Club in May.
Justin Thomas is an hour late for our Zoom call, but he has a good excuse. The Rolex testimonee has just won perhaps the most exclusive tournament in golf, the Pro-Member at Seminole Golf Club in Florida. This year, 94 pros turned up, including 12 of the world’s top 20, and JT beat them all alongside his playing partner, Mike Walrath. Davis Love III once referred to it as the first major of the year. No one seriously counts it as such, though Justin would probably like it if they did.
If there is one trait that has defined Thomas throughout his 20s, it is winning. He has claimed at least one title every year since 2015. They include two majors, two World Golf Championships, the Players Championship and the FedEx Cup.
He knows he should be happy. Instead, he is at odds with himself, conflicted by greed and his own ambitions. Those closest to him will tell you that it has been that way ever since he was kid, trying to live up to the standards set by his father, Mike, and his grandfather, Paul, before him. Both were talented players in their own right.
Paul played in the 1962 US Open, while Mike was the head pro at Harmony Landing Country Club in Kentucky for more than 30 years. Justin was barely two when Mike gave him a cut-down driver, a persimmon MacGregor. He’s been his coach ever since and jokes that the first words out of his son’s mouth were “bag of balls”.
At the age of seven, Justin was watching from the clubhouse at Valhalla when Tiger Woods beat Bob May in a playoff to win the 2000 PGA Championship and he proclaimed that one day he was going to emulate him.
He had to wait 17 years, but everything came full circle when he became only the fourth man in history to win five times, including a major, in a single PGA Tour season before his 25th birthday. He’s been living out his motto ever since: ‘No excuses: Play like a champion’. Other wins have followed. Big ones, too. He just never expected it would take five years to get over the line in a major championship again.
Most golfers would still be happy with 15 PGA Tour titles and eight weeks spent as World No.1, but Justin Thomas wants and expects more. What separates him from the best right now is his consistency. When everything comes together, he can shape his way around the course in a swashbuckling style. It’s one of the reasons he was able to coax caddie Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay out of retirement to be his bagman. At his best, he is brilliant to watch and hard to stop. We just haven’t seen enough of it. Not recently, at least.
He has always been a big-game player, but he is also a little streaky, prone to weeks spent battling in the midfield. Since beating Will Zalatoris in a playoff at Southern Hills to tie the largest 54-hole comeback in PGA Championship history last May, he has logged as many missed cuts (three) as he has top 10s in full-field events. That’s not to say he’s played badly, he just hasn’t hit the heights he – and we – know he is capable of.
He can’t hide his frustrations as we begin our conversation, which was supposed to preview his PGA Championship defense but feels more like a therapy session. It’s clear he has a lot on his mind and an even greater list of unfulfilled goals now he’s just turned 30.
First of all, congratulations on tying the knot late last year. It’s been quite the 12 months for you, winning the PGA Championship and then starring in the Presidents Cup. How do you reflect on it all?
It was obviously a great year due to the PGA. I felt like there were plenty of other aspects I could have done better in, but I got off to a really good start at the beginning of the year. Statistically, it was one of my better years on tour, I just didn’t necessarily have the rounds when I needed them to close out tournaments. But, as a whole, there’s nothing to be upset about. I had a lot of great life moments. I would definitely be content if the rest of my golfing career consisted of me winning a major each year!
Let’s take you back to last year’s PGA Championship. You produced the largest 54-hole comeback in a major since 1999. What was your mentality like on that Sunday morning, when did you really start believing that it might be possible?
I mean, you always have somewhat of a belief in yourself, but the percentages were not in my favor. I think I had, like, a 2% chance to win on Sunday or maybe even less. So, clearly, Vegas didn’t think I had a very good chance! Luckily, I somehow had some inner belief. When you get in that situation, it’s really just about doing your job. I can’t control what everybody else does. All I can do is just try to make birdies when I have the opportunities and try to minimize the mistakes. At the end I’m going to need to get lucky with the guys ahead of me, and that’s what happened.
You waited five years to win that second major. Was that starting to weigh on your mind a little bit?
For sure, it definitely was. I still feel like I should have more than two majors. How I’ve performed in the majors is not comparable to how I feel about my game or how I’ve played in other events, but it’s very hard. You’ve only got four opportunities a year and you’ve got to beat a lot of great players. So, I’m just trying to stay patient and understand that it’s a long career and a lot of things can happen.
You’ve almost taken a similar career path to Jordan Spieth in recent years. There are obvious parallels, given you both won a major in 2017 and struggled to reach the same heights. Is that something you’ve ever talked about?
It’s not, but I sure would trade his major career for mine. That’s very obvious. And I know he would keep his over mine, too. He still has plenty of bragging rights over me when it comes to the majors, but at least I got one closer in the total category, so I’m gaining on him.
Have you proven something to yourself and others by becoming a multiple major champion?
Definitely to myself. Not to downplay it, but I feel like anybody can win one. There’s a long, long list of players who have only won one major and, quite frankly, I felt like I should be out of that category. That I should be a multiple winner. It was frustrating. People can get hot for one week but to start creating your legacy and to truly start being known as one of the greats of all time, you have to win multiple majors. It was a lot harder to win that second one than I thought it would be.
You are one of six players in PGA Tour history with 15 victories and two majors before the age of 30, joining other Rolex testimonees such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger. What’s it like to now be recognized alongside some of the game’s greats?
It means a lot and it is amazing to be associated with those Rolex testimonees and greats of the game. To forge an important legacy is one of the main reasons why a lot of us golfers play. I play to try to have my name in the record books as many times as I can – and that remains the hard part. Although we play golf for such a long time compared to other sports, it goes by incredibly quickly. Getting my career off to a good start has been great, but I hope that the best things in terms of my accomplishments are yet to come.
You turned 30 on April 29. How do you reflect on what you’ve achieved in your 20s? Have you exceeded your own expectations?
I definitely don’t think I’ve exceeded my expectations. To be honest, I really wish and feel like I should and could have won more tournaments. But I can’t take lightly the things that I’ve done and downplay them. We’ve done some great things and I need to take some pride in that. And I do. It’s very obvious that I’m very hard on myself, but I’ve got to realize that we’re doing some good stuff here, too.
You were very open and honest in late 2021 when you admitted that you had been going through some mental health struggles. Was it a slump in confidence, or was there more to it than that?
I just think it’s easy to get in a funk in this game. Lonely isn’t the right word, but you’re alone with your thoughts for sure. You can go into some marbles in this game. It can wear on you. At least for me, I can start thinking too much and I can make things harder than they need to be. Just as important as being able to hit an 8-iron the right distance and have the right shot shape is being in a good headspace. I think that I maybe took that lightly. Until you kind of get in that spot, you realize it’s an area that needs work like anything else.
Was there a point which made you realize you might need to act or speak to someone to get you out of that funk?
Yeah, it is important to be aware of your thoughts and to realize that you should open up when your mindset turns really negative. It was obvious when it occurred to me as I realized I didn’t normally experience that pattern of thought.
Have you watched your episode on Netflix yet?
I have, yes.
Watching your win back, did you learn anything about yourself or your game?
No, I’d pretty much watched and listened to anything and everything that had to do with that week already. I like to for that reason, to pick up on anything that could potentially help me down the road, even if it’s one shot here or there. That’s a big difference. The good thing about the Netflix episode is that I lived it there live. But it’s always good to bring back good memories. And I thought they did a great job with the episode.
You touched on it in the episode, but how big a role did Bones play in that victory?
He played a huge role. I mean, your caddie can win or lose you tournaments. It’s pretty bizarre to say that, but it’s the truth. They are right there with you every step of the way. I spend more time with Bones than I do with my wife. I’m with him every day. I would go to battle with Bones against anybody, any day, and have a lot of faith in him. That’s what makes it a great team.
How much of an impact has Tiger had on your game in recent years?
Yeah, he’s had a huge impact and obviously, we’ve become good buddies. He’s been very helpful to me in different ways, whether it just be golf, advice, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve been very fortunate and I don’t take that for granted.
Ahead of the 2017 season, you revealed that you had spoken to Jack Nicklaus for three hours and then went and won five times. Has Tiger taken on that role of a mentor for you? Do you seek his counsel quite a lot?
Yeah, he’s very open to help, which is great. It’s just situational. There are times when I have stuff going on and I understand that he’s got stuff going on at different times. I just try to take advantage of it when I can get it. If I can sprinkle in some stuff here and there, I’m going to try to do it.
To that point, how much do you think your game has evolved since your first full season on the PGA Tour?
It’s evolved a lot. I have a lot more in my arsenal. I feel like when I first came out on Tour, I was very one-dimensional, with one shot shape, one trajectory. Every wedge shot spun a bunch. There are plenty of great players that are still one-dimensional or whatever you want to call it, but they know what the ball is doing. I feel like I’ve gained a repertoire of shots.
For the most part, I know I can create something if I get in certain scenarios. If I’m in the fairway and I have 180 yards, there’s a variety of four different clubs I can hit, depending on the firmness of the greens, where the hole is located, and where the wind is at. I think that kind of stuff has been helpful for me to bring my artistic, creative side out.
We know you work a lot with your dad, Mike, who doubles as your swing coach. How would you describe the relationship you have and how intense are the range sessions?
I work very hard. I take it very seriously. I don’t want to be 60 years old, sitting on a couch one day, angry that I didn’t give more or do something to benefit myself or my game. It sounds selfish sometimes, but golf is my life. I am truly trying to play the best I can. Why would I not give it my all? That’s what I feel like I do. My dad and I have a great relationship and we work as much as we see fit. If I’m swinging well, it’s more maintenance. Then if I need to get some work done, it’s more grinding.
You were ranked inside the top 16 for strokes gained across every big metric except putting (85th) last season. Is that one area of focus this year?
It’s always a focus, but my putting has improved drastically over the last two or three years. John Graham (my coach) and I have put in a lot of really hard work and we’ve seen some really good improvements. Bones has even said the same thing. But at the end of the day, you want to have trophies to back it up. That’s the only thing missing at this point, trophies in the cabinet.
Looking ahead to your title defense, what are your thoughts on Oak Hill? Have you played the course before?
I’ve never played it before. I’ve watched some highlights here and there. Bones loves it. He thinks it’s a great course for us – I’m always happy to hear Bones say that!
When is the scouting trip planned for?
Well, Rochester, New York isn’t exactly Florida or California in May. We could get snow two weeks before in Rochester. It’s a little harder to plan scouting trips when you don’t know what the weather’s going to do. Worst case scenario, I go up a day or two early and we go from there.
You’ve got prior experience in dealing with the pressure of being a defending champion and everything that comes with it. What can you learn or take away from 2018?
I thought I handled it really well at Bellerive (as defending champion). I mean, you have so few opportunities to defend a tournament, let alone a major, and all eyes are on you. You are in the best group, you’re hosting the Champions Dinner, you have a lot of obligations, a lot of asks for the week. But that’s what you want. That sure beats the alternative of not winning and not getting any of that. So, I’m really just going to try to embrace it and play the best I can.
We know you write down your goals at the start of every year. What would constitute a successful season?
I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. My goal is to win more tournaments. To win more majors. I never share the specifics of my goals, but we’re just trying to tick off as many as we can.
After Matt Fitzpatrick won the US Open, he said that he thinks he can win six majors. Have you set a target?
No, I just want to win as many as humanly possible. I don’t want to set a ceiling or set a goal. But every time I play in a major, I know that I can win it.
How close are you at present to playing your best golf?
(Puffs cheeks out) You never know what that is, right? I’m getting closer. I’ve played better in my career, but I’m very close to playing some really good golf. I’m patiently waiting because I know that it will come.
The Rolex Story
Justin Thomas might spend more time with his caddie than his wife, but his relationship with Rolex outdates both. He was just a kid, a rookie on the Korn Ferry Tour, when Rolex first came calling. He drove 120 miles to meet them the next day and has been part of the Rolex family ever since. At the 150th Open, he was one of 20 testimonees wearing a Rolex on their wrist.
Justin is still sporting one today, a Rolex GMT-Master II ‘Root Beer’, which holds particular significance because it is engraved with ‘05.13.18’ – the day he became World No.1. Should he defend the PGA Championship in May, there’s a high chance a new Rolex will be on the way.
Justin Thomas is a Rolex testimonee and part of the brand’s enduring relationship with the game which began more than 50 years ago, in 1967, with Arnold Palmer, joined by Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Since then, the affiliation between Rolex and golf has grown into one with a global reach. In 2021, Rolex became the Official Timekeeper and Official Partner of the PGA of America, organizer of the PGA Championship, supporting its efforts to grow interest and inclusion in the game of golf. Through this partnership Rolex is present at all four men’s Majors, the pinnacle of achievement in the sport.
About the author
Michael Catling is Today’s Golfer‘s Features Editor and an award-winning journalist who specializes in golf’s Majors and Tours, including DP World, PGA, LPGA, and LIV.
Michael joined Today’s Golfer in 2016 and has traveled the world to attend the game’s biggest events and secure exclusive interviews with dozens of Major champions, including Jack Nicklaus, Jordan Spieth, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Gary Player, and Justin Thomas.
A former member of Ufford Park and Burghley Park, Michael has been playing golf since he was 11 and currently plays off a handicap of 10.
Away from golf he’s a keen amateur chef and has his own healthy recipes website. He also loves playing squash, going to the gym, and following Chelsea FC.