Justin Thomas plays the 12th hole during a practice round at the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
By John Huggan
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — By his admission, Justin Thomas hasn’t golfed his ball with distinction in any of his previous visits to the Open Championship. Maybe the only thing the former PGA champion has so far mastered is the “false dawn.” All three of his appearances in golf’s oldest major have opened brightly but ended badly.
The 67 Thomas shot in the opening round at Royal Troon in 2016 turned out to be only the beginning of a T-53 finish. A year later, he played Royal Birkdale in the same score, only to shoot 80 on the second day to miss the cut. And last year was a similar story: a 69 on Day 1 at Carnoustie was followed by a 77 and another early flight back to the States.
So what’s going on?
A couple of badly timed draws—the weather is nearly always a factor in the Open—have contributed to his failings, but so has “poor execution” in unpredictable seaside conditions not often found in Thomas’ native Kentucky.
Strangely, though, Thomas, 26, says he enjoys the vagaries of golf by the shore. Unlike five-time Open champion Tom Watson, who took an instant dislike to the links game and later learned to love it, Thomas relishes the challenge that has so far proved difficult for him to solve. He certainly has nothing but good things to say about Royal Portrush.
“This is just a great test of golf,” he said in his Tuesday press conference. “It has a little bit of everything. You’re going to have some holes with short irons, and some holes with long irons. There is great variety on the par 3s, too, but an opportunity for different setups. It’s just a tremendous golf course.”
Yes, yes, but is he better equipped to deal with all that the next few days might bring, in terms of the weather and the shot-making required? Thomas thinks he is.
“I learned a lot on Friday last year,” he said. “I went out with the same game plan when it was raining sideways and cold that I did when it was 65 and sunny. Understanding the situation and the weather I’m playing in means I need to reassess where I’m at. Which is different from the States, where I’m going to hit a driver off a certain hole no matter what. Over here, the same course and the same holes can be day-to-day.
“I know better now. When conditions change like that, I have to change my game plan, or just attack holes differently. That’s something I’ve taken a couple of years to learn. But I have a better understanding of how to play it. Obviously, I haven’t done too well to this point.”
What has Thomas done differently to prepare for this huge variety of potential conditions? Not much, as it turns out.
“I wasn’t hitting lower shots when I was home, or chipping with different clubs,” he said. “I try to take it like I do every week. I have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to get accustomed to the greens, to get accustomed around the greens. But I also played the Scottish [Open] last week [where he finished T-9] to where I don’t feel like I have to do as much to get prepared for this week. So I would say it is more about me getting into the right state of mind.”
As for the Royal Portrush course—the Dunluce Links in local parlance—Thomas was looking forward to a practice round with (fairly) local man, Rory McIlroy. He’ll be paying close attention to everything the Northern Irishman does.
“Even if you don’t play with someone from here, it’s just seeing where all the golf balls go,” Thomas said. “Paying attention to every shot everybody hits, seeing where they come down, and seeing where they end up—if it lands a certain distance and comes down in a certain spot, just seeing where it goes. So for me it’s been helpful the last couple of days, playing with a lot of guys and seeing the different spots they get into. That way you see tendencies, where a ball feeds to on the greens or in the fairways. That’s been helpful.”
There is just one nagging propensity Thomas would do well to jettison this week. His fast starts need to translate into equally speedy finishes.