Justin Thomas has had some good mentors available to him over the years. As a teenager he caddied for (and then played alongside) Michael Jordan; for a while he had the bag cubby next to Jack Nicklaus at the latter’s Bear's Club in Jupiter, Fla.; he often practices alongside Tiger Woods. He draws frequently on what Woods, in particular, has taught him.
But on Friday at the U.S. Open, as Thomas shook his head and muttered to himself after double-bogeying No. 1 (his 10th hole of the day) to go to 5 over par, it was Jimmy Johnson, his caddie of five years, who said what he needed to hear.
Be patient, the 63-year-old Johnson reminded Thomas, 27. Just keep playing your game. Good things will happen.
Thomas knows this, of course. He is the World No. 3. He won his first—and so far only—major at 24. But it’s nice to hear someone say it. He recovered to finish the day at a 3-over 73, which left him in a tie for third at 2 under par.
“Today easily could have been a 6 or 7 [over par],” he said after the round. “I'm proud of myself for how I hung in.”
Thomas shot a 65 on Thursday to take the lead and set a record for the lowest score at a U.S. Open held at Winged Foot Golf Club, in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He made par on his first three holes of the second round.
Then he hit his par putt too hard on No. 13. He drove into the right rough on No. 14, and another par putt lipped out. He hooked his drive on 16 into the trees. “Get lucky!” he yelled as the ball sailed. He did not. He yanked his par putt inches to the left. He sliced his next drive as close to the 12th fairway as to the 17th, then struck a pose familiar to every recreational golfer: shoulders slouched, arm flung to the right.
He made birdie on No. 18, which played third-hardest on Friday at an average of .52 shots over par. But then came that No. 1. He sent his drive into the left rough. His second shot made the fairway, but the third rolled off the green. He tried to get up and down, but his bogey putt ran a foot past the hole. He followed it, negotiating with it, before finally holing out.
This was the inflection point. A few years ago, Thomas might have tried to compensate for his wayward drives by playing more aggressively. He has always been as good a bet as anyone to blow away the field on Thursday at a major. But when he was younger, he often followed that performance by blowing up. At the 2017 British Open, he shot a first-round, 3-under 67 ...and a second-round 80. He missed the cut. A year later, he shot a 2-under 69 on Thursday. All he had to do was survive Friday. Instead he shot a 77.
Since then, he has worked to improve his short game and his ability to make a variety of shots, which allows him to make up for some wildness off the tee and a few unlucky putts. And he has worked to rein in that tendency to go for every pin, no matter the cost.
On Friday, he ranked 115th out of 138 in strokes gained off the tee, at –0.77. He ranked 65th in strokes gained putting, at 0.35. But he ranked 39th in approach, at 1.02, and eight around the green, at 1.68. He can still go low better than almost anyone. If he can manage the days when his game isn’t where he wants it to be, he can beat anyone. And if he can salvage those rounds, he can give himself time to fix his stroke.
“The thing is, 5 over at a—I hate to say regular golf course, but a regular golf course is different than 5 over out here,” Thomas said. “I wasn't playing well, but I wasn't that far off. I was hitting a lot of putts that just were burning edges. With the wind on greens this severe and when you're playing that much break on putts, you can easily misgauge it or lip it out or just not quite play enough. [Johnson] knew and I knew that we were close to getting something and at least making some pars or throwing in a birdie or two.”
The most representative image of Thomas could have been his slumped frame, arm thrust to the right, on 17, his fourth bogey in five holes. Instead it came half a round later, on 8, after he had righted the ship. For the third time all day, he drove clean onto the fairway. He watched it go, straightened up and twirled his club.