He looked in pain. The ball was barely off the clubface when Justin Thomas’ right hand came off the grip, his arm falling to his side before shooting up and to the right to signal where the ball was headed at the 12th hole. As soon as he hollered “FORE!” Thomas dropped his head. No need to watch it land, because he knew wherever it finished would be far from where it was supposed to go. His right hand returned to the club and it took all of Thomas’ willpower not to break that club in two, instead taking an angry swipe at the ground and muttering: “Come ON” before marching off in dazed resignation. He knew what was happening, and knew there was nothing he could do to stop it. It was that kind of day for Thomas. But it’s really been that kind of year.

Justin Thomas will eventually get right, but it won’t be here, as the two-time major champ stumbled to an 11-over 82, the worst round of his major career, on Thursday at Royal Liverpool.

This wasn’t one of those links rounds where every bounce is bad and the wind decides to roar just as the ball is in mid-flight, when it seems like there are higher forces at work and for some reason they are working against you. This was like the “The Exorcist”: terrifying from the opening scene. Facing a delicate pitch over a pot bunker at the first, Thomas flubbed the chip, the ball cascading off the bunker’s wall and into the sand. A birdie at the fifth was wiped out by three bogeys on the next four holes. The back offered no respite, and the final hole was sadistically cruel. Thomas pumped a ball out-of-bounds, his fourth found a bunker, his fifth found another bunker … because this is a family publication we’ll save the details, although it’s worth noting his save for triple went all the way to the cup before deciding, “Nah.” The final damage was a quadruple-bogey 9.

Perhaps this performance shouldn’t be of great surprise. He has just one finish better than T-60 in his last six starts, and only one top-10 finish since the middle of March. In the last six years Thomas has finished no worse than seventh in the FedEx Cup standings, yet with just two regular-season events left after the Open he’s currently outside the playoff bubble. It’s been a particularly rough go at this year’s majors. Thomas bogeyed three of his final holes in a Saturday downpour at the Masters to miss the cut. He made the weekend at the PGA Championship but did so on the number, and ejected hard at the US Open with a Friday 81. The Open hasn’t been historically kind to Thomas either, a T-11 in 2019 his only finish better than T-40 in six previous starts.

Thing is, if the numbers are to be believed, Thomas isn’t that far off. He entered Hoylake ranked 23rd in strokes gained/tee-to-green and 33rd in birdie average. He had a 62 and 64 at the Travelers Championship en route to a T-9 finish. His woes are not from a lack of effort, camping out on the range for hours on end, this week at the Open included. He has drastically altered his diet, abiding by a gluten and dairy-free regimen to combat fatigue issues that have plagued him for the past year.

But there are numbers and efforts and plans, and then there are the eyes, and it’s clear the Thomas of present is not the Thomas of the past. When things are going well for Thomas — which until a few months ago, was often — he is a fusion of giddiness and swagger, exuding a persona that is best described as mild annoyance at what stands between him and where he wants to go. He is both a throwback, adhering to the tenets of shot-making and vision and around-the-green dexterity, while conforming to the modern game’s demands of power and aggression. Jim “Bones” Mackay said he came out of retirement to take Thomas’ bag because Thomas has “all the shots,” which is saying something given Bones spent decades with Phil Mickelson.

Only that giddiness and swagger has been absent for some time, and in its stead is a man who knows his game isn’t there and is unsure of where it went. His aggressiveness has been tamed, his putting has been bad (152nd in SG/putting), and his ability to keep the big numbers at bay has been brutal. And though what he’s going through can best be described as a slump it’s trending dangerously close to something more ominous, because once you get lost in the wilderness there’s no guarantee of return.

These are not sentiments foreign to this sport; Thomas’ friends Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth know them well. Thomas was also far from the only player to come out on the business end of Royal Liverpool on Thursday. But few are on the trajectory that Thomas is on, and with expectations comes impossibly high standards and responsibility. It can be unfair, yet that is the price of stardom.

Thomas will get another chance on Friday, and one good round can go ways in putting his past rounds into the past and keeping them there. Hope is never far from heartache in this sport. That’s perhaps the most painful part.