NEWS FROM THE TOUR VANS
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The decline of Justin Thomas over the past 12 months has one significant difference when compared to the previous dips of close friends Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler.
Spieth and Fowler both suffered through well-documented slumps in the past few years, with Spieth falling to No. 120 in the Data Golf rankings by August of 2020, and Fowler dropping even further, to No. 169 by August of 2022. Both players have rallied from those depths as Spieth ranks No. 18 and Fowler is No. 9, making them virtual locks for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Now we are in August of 2023 and Thomas came into this week’s Wyndham Championship at No. 71 in Data Golf, his true strokes gained metric (+0.75) being the worst of his PGA Tour career. He threatened to make the FedEx Cup playoffs after some encouraging play in Greensboro but came up just short of the top 70. Remarkably, Thomas had finished in the top seven of the FedEx Cup for six consecutive years before this turn of events.
In the case of Spieth and Fowler, both of their lulls included meaningful dropoffs in putting performance. They were well above average putters throughout their most successful years. From 2013 to 2019, Spieth and Fowler combined to have only one putting year below PGA Tour average.
The 101 class of golf analytics will tell you putting is by far the most difficult skill to maintain over a long period of time because there is naturally more variability in putting than ball-striking.
You could argue that Spieth and Fowler – very good but not dominating ball-strikers throughout their careers – were susceptible to the drops they experienced.
But Thomas is historically a mediocre putter by tour standards. He has never finished in the top 40 of strokes gained putting and has been outside the top 80 on seven occasions. Multiple times he was well outside the top 100.
He was bad on the greens this season – the worst he has been in his career – but that is not where his bread has been buttered. Thomas is a sublime iron player. From 2017 through 2022, he had six consecutive seasons ranking in the top eight of strokes gained approach. With iron play being among the most repeatable skills, Thomas seemed more recession-proof than his friends. Maybe he wasn’t as automatic as his alma mater Alabama’s football team, but he was a safe bet to be his usual superstar self. It was only 17 months ago, in March of 2022, when Thomas was No. 1 in the overall Data Golf rankings.
His iron play, however, is a shell of what it previously was. Gaining just 0.39 strokes per round in approach, the power of that skill has essentially been cut by some 60-70 percent compared to his normal, well-established baseline. His driver, which has been solid but not transcendent in his career, is about half as effective as it has been dating to 2017.
It’s so out of character that we wouldn’t be surprised to learn about a nagging injury or something else that is bothering Thomas. Any forward progress will begin and end with his iron play.
Having said that, Thomas recently changed putters, moving into a 38-inch Scotty Cameron Phantom X 9 Tour. The longer counterbalanced mallet is the hottest putter build on tour this summer, as evidenced by the Odyssey Jailbird phenomenon.
“I’ll putt with a shoe if it means I’ll make everything, as long as it’s a Scotty Cameron shoe,” Thomas said jokingly in Minnesota at the 3M Open. “It’s something I feel comfortable with.”
Swapping putters is nothing new for Thomas, but it will take more than a different feel on the greens to turn around his downward trend. Something is up with his ball-striking, and it will be interesting to see whether he can use some forced time off to get back on track.