11 October 2017

The Most Improved Player of the Year

It was early 2016, Justin Louis Thomas was a young PGA Tour pro in his sophomore season. Trying to stay above the cutline of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, he hit his 3-wood off the tee. Unfortunately, the ball flew left towards the water and he made a bogey on that hole, missing the cut by a single stroke. Thomas was clearly disappointed with the result. 

In early 2017, at the same event, Thomas was one over and needed two birdies on the last two holes to secure his place in the next round. He only managed one birdie and once again missed the cut. But this time it didn’t phase him; the difference was, Thomas had already secured back-to-back titles just two weeks earlier. 

The two titles at the start of the 2017 season were the beginning of Thomas’s meteoric rise to the top. Shortly after, he added two prestigious titles: his first major title, the US PGA Championship, and the Dell Technologies Championship on September 4 at TPC Boston. The former was the second series of the FedEx Cup Playoffs and lifted him to No. 2 in the FedEx Cup rankings. It also placed him closer to being named PGA Tour Player of the Year.

So what suddenly changed Thomas?

“I’m a lot better at golf. I think I’m stronger. I’m in better shape. I’m way more mentally tough. Things don’t affect me as much. I mean, I’m still fiery. I still get angry. That’s just my personality, my character; that will probably never change,” said Thomas, as quoted by Golf Week.

Whether Thomas wins the Player of the Year award or not, the 24-year-old is, without doubt, the most improved player of the year. He’s had an impressive season, securing five victories in total, the crowning glory of his haul is his first major title.

Thomas's achievements are the result of him finally realizing his true potential. From his starry junior days through to his amateur career, Thomas showed an exceptional amount of talent and looked destined for big things. However, he struggled to climb the ladder in the professional arena since turning pro in 2013. His impatience to advance, especially in light of his good friend, Jordan Spieth, becoming golf’s newest superstar, seemed to take a toll on his game. When his frustration levels rose even further after failing to clinch several victories, he decided to meet Jack Nicklaus in the hope he would give him some useful advice. 

“Justin came and we talked for a couple of hours. Just talked,'' said Nicklaus, as quoted by Golf Channel. “I don't want to tell him what to do. I let him ask questions and I tried to feel how he's doing and what he's doing and how can I help his thought process. That's more what it was about.”

The conversation seemed to be a catalyst for Thomas’s change. He entered the 2017 season with a visibly different attitude. Showing a newfound patience, good or bad, he’s not affected by his game over previous holes. If he fails to birdie a hole, he’ll get the next one. And the improvement is paying off, he’s reaping the rewards. 

His new mindset hasn’t only affected the number of titles he’s been able to claim, his game statistics have also improved dramatically. His strides forward are reflected through his numbers: 11 top-10s this season, compared with seven in 2015-16; he has gone from 47th to fourth (69.439) in scoring; he’s third in eagles (holes per) and is second in birdie average one year after ranking 35th in both categories; and No. 1 in putting average.

But, all the success of this season hasn’t done anything to dampen his hunger and motivation to win. “I wish I had three majors right now,” said Thomas after winning at TPC Boston. “I’m obviously pleased with one, but I wish I had three.” 

Thomas looks like he’s just getting started.



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