The Curious Case of Justin Thomas

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C.—Four days after patrons at the 88th Masters were provided eclipse glasses to view a rare natural phenomenon, they had no such assistance to help comprehend the inexplicable meltdown of Justin Thomas on April 12.

Truth is, nearly two weeks later, what transpired late in Round 2 of the Masters still left Thomas confounded. Level par through 14 holes, Thomas was not only safely inside the cut—he was in position to threaten the leaders.

Then, unfathomable shock. Double bogeys at the par-five 15th (when he laid up into the pond!) and par-three 16th were followed by a bogey at the par-four 17th and then one final dagger—a double-bogey at the par-four 18th. Seven shots squandered over the final four holes and Thomas struggled to explain how at 7-over he missed the cut at the Masters for a second straight year.

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Justin Thomas prepares for a shot on the 5th tee during the second round of the 2024 Masters Tournament (photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

“It was hard to swallow…probably just didn’t handle the moment I was in as well as I should have…I was more shocked than anything.”

These were some of the comments made by Thomas when he resurfaced a week after his Masters debacle at the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

As Thomas spoke, the sun was dancing off the waters of Calibogue Sound and the merriment of the Harbor Town crowd filled the air. Thomas had come about 140 miles from the heartache of Augusta. But with a black cloud seemingly hanging over him, Thomas seems to be 114,000 miles from those days when the game appeared to be so easy.

The indicators are easy to spot, just difficult to explain.

  • The 31-year-old left the Masters ranked 29th in the Official World Golf Rankings—and for perspective, he hasn’t been outside Top 30 since Oct. 16, 2016.
  • Thomas has not won since May of 2022.
  • There have been three straight missed cuts in the majors, thanks to an 81 at last year’s U.S. Open, an 82 at the 2023 Open Championship, and those three double-bogeys in four holes at the 2024 Masters.

Clearly, he is not strutting his game like he did between the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2022 when he won 15 times in 168 tournaments, including two PGA Championships, and had a brief stay atop the OWGR.

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Justin Thomas celebrates with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning on the third playoff hole during the final round of the 2022 PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. (photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Not so clear is this: How does he turn this around?

To his credit, Thomas starts by pointing the finger at himself. “I’m very, very hard on myself. And it doesn’t help me too often,” he says. “(I’m) just trying to realize that it’s in the past and I played really good golf. I just need to get over it.”

It’s become public knowledge that Thomas is working with Julie Elion, a sports psychologist who worked with Phil Mickelson, Geoff Ogilvy, Charl Schwartzel, and Sean O’Hair in the past and is working with Max Homa and Wyndham Clark these days.

But put the brakes on any thoughts you have to Elion having been called to make a quick fix. That’s because Thomas confirms that he’s worked “with people in the past” and his time with Elion goes back “a year-and-a-half-ish” which covers this period of indifferent play that has dropped him down in the world rankings.

When Thomas was at his youthful best—like 2016–17 when he won five times; or 2017–18, a three-win campaign; or 2019–20, three more triumphs—he was widely regarded as a kid who “played golf” but did not “play golf swing.” Standing over his ball, oftentimes Thomas could hit you four different shots, but he made his decision swiftly, took ownership, and there was very little turbulence in his golf world.

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Justin Thomas hits a tee shot on the 2nd hole during the final round of the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, S.C.(photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The heaters were impressive, like the close to 2017 when in five tournaments he won the PGA at Quail Hollow and a FedExCup playoff at TPC Boston, placed second at the Tour Championship, and shot over par just once in 20 rounds.

That is why when talk rolls around to Scottie Scheffler’s current stretch of torrid golf (four wins in 10 starts in 2024, including a second Masters), Thomas reminds that “I’ve been there (when) it’s the easiest game in the world and you’re like, ‘I just don’t understand, how do you shoot over par?’”

He’s just not there now, although a solid 69–68–68–65 ledger to finish top-10 at the RBC Heritage is a step in the right direction. Curiously, there have been departures by elite caddies (Jimmy Johnson following the 2021 Ryder Cup and Jim “Bones” Mackay right before this year’s Masters) and Thomas had to clarify reports before last year’s Ryder Cup that he wasn’t using his father as his coach anymore.

Mike Thomas brushed aside those reports, but Justin Thomas confirmed to reporters last September that he envisioned going back to what worked well in 2016–19. That was a stretch when Mike rarely traveled to Justin’s tournaments and the kid played brilliantly, relying on his uncanny ability to play golf, not golf swing, and a chipping and pitching game that few players can match.

So maybe there’s something to suggestions that Justin cannot unhear what he’s heard when it comes to a lot of the technical swing stuff that bogged him down. Or perhaps it will pay dividends if he’s able return to the simple mindset of 2016–19.

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Justin Thomas of Team United States celebrates on the 15th green during the Friday afternoon fourball matches of the 2023 Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome, Italy. (photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

He just knows it cannot continue as it’s been going.

“I’ve got to let go of the wheel,” he said. “I’ve been having just the hardest time, more like with expectations; trying to meet my own and meet others’ instead of just playing.”