It would be all too easy to categorise Justin Thomas’s victory at the US PGA Championship on Sunday as just another moment of opportunism, writes John McHenry.
But with three prior victories this year, and now a Major championship, Thomas’s victory was as much about finally delivering on the potential he demonstrated throughout his amateur career while ridding himself of the long, long, shadow cast over him by his great friend Jordan Spieth.
Earlier this year, I tipped Thomas as one of the potential winners at Augusta National. I did so because his stats and form at the time suggested that he had a complete game. Long off the tee box, he is one of the game’s better ball-strikers, with a short game and level of creativity to match. The X factor in his game is his fearlessness and uncanny ability to shoot some really low scores when he is hot.
In January, for example, he shot a 59 in Hawaii. Just last June, he shot a 63 on the Saturday of the US Open, to enter the final round one shot off the lead and while a poor start to his final round put paid to his chances there, he obviously used that experience to get himself over the line on Sunday.
That’s what great champions do. They understand that they need to channel their frustrations positively - using past experiences as a learning and motivational tool to drive them on towards achieving their next goal.
On Sunday, the combination of Thomas’s clarity of mind, his determination and even a little impatience to enter the ranks of major champions, allowed him to deliver on the most important stage of his career to date.
When I speak to people about my experiences in golf, one of the very first things they talk about is how easy the best players make the game look and how easy it must be to play good golf all the time, when you are such a good player. But golf, like every other sport, is all about creating and taking opportunities. And it is especially about controlling the momentum when things aren’t going as planned, as they never do during the course of a white knuckle 72-hole major championship.
It would have been easy for Thomas to be frustrated and slightly unnerved by the bladed bunker shot which led to a silly shot being dropped on the opening hole of the final round, much like he did in his poor start to the final round at the US Open in June. But on Sunday a more experienced Thomas stayed focused – reserving his best golf for an impressive closing stretch that blew his fellow competitors away.
To win, on the biggest stage, you can’t count on help. You’ve got to make your own luck and while he can thank his lucky stars that his birdie putt finally fell on the 10th green, after an inordinate but legal amount of time, his chip-in on the 13th hole and especially the seven iron he hit to the 223 yards 17th hole to set up his championship defining birdie, suggest Thomas will determine his own future status.
Having recently admitted jealousy that Jordan Spieth’s remarkable achievements in the game have made him feel like an underachiever, last Sunday’s victory means that forever more Thomas is going to be judged on his own performances. That means that from now on he can concentrate on his own legacy – one which hopefully will be focused more on achievement than money won.
And what of the Irish, more particularly Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy this past week? For me, Shane should look back positively. While never in contention, he can draw comfort from playing solidly in good company and his putting stats for the week suggest there is better to come. But only if he stays focused on playing a tidy game that does not include the destructively silly shots that have plagued his game for some time. Those errors are more about concentration than anything else.
As for Rory McIlroy, three years without a major championship is a disappointing return for a man of his talents. While talking about resting up now to heal his rib injury, I hope that over the coming months he finds the time to prioritise a number of components that will make him competitive again. He must be fully fit for next year’s campaign, bring a proper and dependable short game and most importantly follow a proper tournament schedule that gives himself the best opportunity to win major championships.
Right now, if he is truly honest with himself he will accept that he has fallen behind others in the game in terms of overall ability and if he truly wants to be recognised as the best player of his generation, then he must focus harder on his stats – which do not lie - and start working more productively.
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