MEXICO CITY – It wasn’t the moment Justin Thomas’ legend was born, but it certainly added to the young man’s lore.
For months, Thomas had been asked his goals for the 2017 season and for months he’d offered only vague answers.
Every time he was asked for specifics, he would politely decline, explaining that they were personal. That was until his runner-up finish at the Tour Championship propelled him to his first FedExCup title and he finally relented.
Thomas flashed his cellphone to reporters and started reading what turned out to be a lengthy list: win at least once, be in the final two groups of a major on Sunday, win a major, make the U.S. Presidents Cup team, finish in the top 30 in scrambling, etc.
Back in 2015, your scribe had a similar conversation with then-Tour rookie Thomas. Again he offered only oblique responses, revealing a telling part of a detail-oriented mind.
Now fast forward to Tuesday’s press conference at the WGC-Mexico Championship. Once again he was asked about his goals, but this time the circumstances suggested a new answer, even if Thomas’ response was predictable.
Do you have a date set to reach world No. 1?
“Whenever and if ever that day comes, I'll be perfectly fine with that date,” he smiled. “You can't control what other people can do; I can only control what I can do and the work that I'm putting in. So I'm going to continue to practice and prepare and get myself as ready as possible to keep climbing the rankings every way that I can.”
Mathematically, Thomas’ point is valid.
With his playoff victory on Sunday over Luke List at the Honda Classic, Thomas jumped past Jordan Spieth to third in the Official World Golf Ranking, just behind No. 2 Jon Rahm and 1.93 average ranking points behind No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
To put that in context, he can’t overtake Johnson this week even with a victory against a world-class field in Mexico (where he finished tied for fifth last year). Nor does it seem like Johnson is anywhere close to giving up his reign, having won the Sentry Tournament of Champions last month and finishing second at Pebble Beach.
But at this juncture, it’s not when Thomas may be able to ascend to the top spot that’s important, it’s what he needs to do to get there.
Like the majority of those goals on his list last year, becoming world No. 1 is as nebulous as, say, finishing in the top 30 in scrambling. But when it comes to specific ambitions, it’s the hundreds of little things that it would take to achieve those goals that will equate to success, not the actual accomplishment.
As clichéd as it sounds, it’s the journey, not the destination, particularly when the distance between victory and a tie for 10th is a missed putt on Thursday morning or an ill-timed gust of wind on Sunday afternoon.
It should be no surprise, but Thomas adheres to a strict policy when it comes to victories.
“I've always liked what [Alabama] coach [Nick] Saban says. They have the 48-hour rule at Alabama. They get to enjoy their win and then it's on to the next one,” said Thomas, who played college golf at Alabama. “That's in the past and all you can focus and work on is your process and getting ready for the next event.”
Following Sunday’s victory at PGA National, he enjoyed an impromptu dinner celebration with some family and friends at The Woods Jupiter, Tiger Woods’ South Florida restaurant, before catching his flight to Mexico with a clean slate.
Finding motivation has never been difficult for Thomas, even after winning five times last season and claiming his first major at the PGA Championship. But when you start collecting titles at the clip he’s been on the last year or so there’s always the danger of complacency, and now that he’s moved to the world ranking doorstep, ascending to No. 1 fits perfectly with Thomas’ play and his long-term plans.
Even if that means he holds the top spot for just a single week, it’s a goal that is at once simple and sustainable.
“It is bizarre just because there's so many players right now, and there always is, but so many players right now that can kind of change that,” Thomas said of the world ranking. “To do what anybody who's hung in there for a year like DJ has is extremely impressive. But just the fact that if and when it does happen, to be able to say that you have been [world No. 1], is a pretty cool accomplishment.”
To be clear, his system has worked flawlessly to this point, but whatever list of goals Thomas concocted for 2018 and thumbed into the notes app on his cellphone, there’s one accomplishment that would check all the right boxes – becoming world No. 1.