TULSA, Okla. – About 24 hours before he shot the low round of the afternoon wave at Southern Hills, Justin Thomas was fuming on the driving range, growing increasingly frustrated with his father/swing coach Mike, and wondering why he suddenly couldn’t find the clubface.
“I just hitting it terrible,” he said. “I wasn’t hitting the shots I wanted. Just feeling bad over the ball is obviously not a very good feeling.”
Especially on the eve of a major championship. Especially at a test like Southern Hills, where there’s a premium on accuracy – not just off the tee, to avoid the unpredictable Bermuda rough, but also into the greens, with the severe slopes, small quadrants and steep runoffs.
Finally, Mike Thomas intervened and suggested that his son lay down some alignment sticks and just try to hit shots. Different shapes. Varying trajectories.
“Immediately, I just started flushing it and hitting it how I wanted,” Thomas said.
Though he wasn’t sharpshooting Thursday, Thomas made one of just four birdies on the difficult 18th hole and signed for a 3-under 67 at the PGA Championship. That tied the best score of the late finishers (who battled warmer temperatures and a stiffer wind) and put him two shots off Rory McIlroy’s lead.
“It was a nice end to a solid fight out there,” he said.
A solid start was just what Thomas was looking for as he tries to capture his second major, and first since the 2017 PGA. Few have been better on the PGA Tour in recent years than Thomas, who has 14 wins, but he’s the first to admit that he’s been pedestrian in golf’s biggest events. That includes earlier this year at the Masters, where he was unfocused and undisciplined in an opening 76 that left him too far back to recover. He rallied to tie for eighth, just his fourth top-10 since his major breakthrough.
Battling allergies, Thomas felt terrible Tuesday and had the shaky practice session the day before the opening round. But he and his dad were able to find a solution – together.
Now 29, Thomas admitted it’s still tricky terrain to navigate with his father as his swing coach, particularly in the rare instances when he’s not swinging well.
“I get pissed at him sometimes,” Thomas said, “and I think as a dad he’s not going to go full Butch Harmon or Pete Cowen and tell me I suck, or that’s not very good, and sometimes I would love for him to say that, just because I want to hear it.
“I have to remind him sometimes: You’re not my dad out here, you’re my swing coach, and I need you to tell me if something is wrong. I don’t need my ego boosted; I’m here to try to win a golf tournament and play well, so do your job, kind of thing.
“It’s gotten a lot better over the last couple of years, but it’s like any player-coach relationship. You need that accountability.”