ATLANTA – On a day when several players around him were going low, Justin Thomas, a player who’d begun his Saturday tied for the lead at the Tour Championship, signed for a disheartening, third-round, even-par 70. As he exited the scoring area, a PGA Tour numbers guru awaited, offering to bring Thomas up to speed on all of Sunday’s FedEx Cup possibilities and scenarios.
“I was just about to get informed, and I told him, ‘I don’t care to know,’ and to politely get away from me,” said Thomas, 24, who is tied for fourth at 7-under 203, five shots behind leader Paul Casey, who fired a brilliant 65 alongside him. “I don’t care. I’m just trying to win a golf tournament. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
Thomas entered the Tour Championship second overall, behind only Jordan Spieth in the race for the FedEx Cup. The winner earns a $10 million bonus (second in the FedEx race earns $3 million). Thomas finally coaxed some putts to fall on Saturday, something he hadn’t done over his first two rounds, but he struggled at times with his ballstriking. Thomas missed six greens one day after he’d hit 15. Two poor drives (on Nos. 6 and 14) cost him, and he hasn’t been pleased with his iron game this week. The ballstriking that has delivered five titles in 2016-17, including his first major, the PGA Championship, simply has been a little off.
“I really have hit my irons, for me, extremely poor this week,” Thomas said. “A lot of my birdies have been with wedges in my hands. I just need to get a lot more consistent ball flight, and drive it better, like I did the first two days, and I’ll feel that I at least will have somewhat of a chance.”
Thomas made bogey at the par-5 sixth after tugging a tee shot left and having to punch out. He punched out again at the 520-yard, par-4 14th after another errant tee ball, once again left, hit a third shot to 37 feet, and three-putted, missing a 4-footer for bogey.
“It really was just two shots off the tee that cost me four shots overall,” Thomas said.
Spieth came into the week at No. 1 in FedEx Cup points, but Thomas, who won the Dell Technologies Championship outside Boston three weeks ago, is the player with the inside track on PGA Tour player of the year, owning five victories this season to Spieth’s four. Each player landed a major this summer, Spieth winning the Open Championship, Thomas breaking through at the PGA. Spieth shot 69 on Saturday and sits in a tie for 13th place, three shots behind Thomas.
Thomas’ mindset for the week has been to focus upon, and win, the Tour Championship. Period. If that would happen, the FedEx Cup would be delivered, too. He has yet to get too caught up in the Catch 22 of the Tour’s tournament-within-a-tournament. And that mindset of Tour Championship-first is the one with which he at least plans to begin his Sunday. Later in the afternoon, should the trophy get out of reach, his thought process could shift.
“If it gets down to the end, and I don’t have a chance, then I need to finish certain things here or there to maybe have a chance to win the FedEx Cup,” he said. “But I’m not going into tomorrow trying to finish ‘this or better.’
“I’m trying to finish first. I feel there’s a low one (score) in me a lot of times, it’s just a matter of it happening. I made some putts today, which was awesome, and I hit a lot of really, really good putts that lipped out and didn’t go in. But it was nice to see some putts over 10 feet go in.”
Thomas made 90 feet, 3 inches of putts on Day 3, which nearly matched his overall output of his first two rounds (101 feet, 6 inches).
If there was a rainbow in his day, Thomas was bolstered late by birdies on the 16th and 18th holes that at least got him back to 7 under. He holed an 11-footer at the 16th and reached the 572-yard closing hole in two shots, two-putting from 52 feet for his fifth birdie of the day. He has 14 birdies and an eagle on his week. Four times he has bounced back from a bogey by immediately making a birdie.
There are many unknowns heading into Sunday. The tournament leader, Paul Casey, is a world-class player with a terrific record at East Lake, but he owns only one Tour victory, the 2009 Shell Houston Open. In fact, the three players ahead of Thomas (Casey, Kevin Kisner, Xander Schauffele) have combined for only four career victories. East Lake is an interesting layout; it can yield low scores, and for those not hitting fairways, it can prove a difficult place to hold a lead.
“I mean, those two birdies on the last three holes were huge,” Thomas said. “They give me a lot better chance going into tomorrow.”