AKRON, Ohio – Justin Thomas was focused on all the right things.
He admitted “it feels like I haven’t won in forever,” the day before the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, five months removed from his last victory at the Honda Classic.
Time passes slowly when you’re 25 years old and the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year, but Thomas insisted he was a better player this season than last, even if the win total didn’t show it.
Four days later he backed up his statement. Thomas shot 15-under 265 to take down an elite field to win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in blowout fashion.
“I’m just in a great place mentally right now,” Thomas said. “I was so patient and calm all week.”
Expectations were high as could be after Thomas won the PGA Championship a year ago in Charlotte, earning career major No. 1 in his third season on Tour.
Roughly 450 miles southwest of Quail Hollow, at Thomas’ alma matter, the work was just beginning for Nick Saban and Alabama. They were building the foundation for a fifth national championship in nine years.
Thomas won five times in 2017, added another $10 million to the bank account with the FedEx Cup bonus and was named Player of the Year. The task he faced entering this year was similar to the Crimson Tide’s after winning their first title under Saban back in 2009, and a challenge was thrown down going into 2010.
“It can’t be about trying to prove something, because you’ve kind of already done that,” Saban said then. “It needs to be about, do you want to be the best you can be? Are you driven to be the best player you can be?”
Like Tide, Thomas wants to keep rollin’
Thomas has proved plenty in 2018. He rose to No. 1 in the world and picked up his third win of the season in Akron.
And his goals echo that of the head coach in Tuscaloosa as he prepares to defend his PGA crown at Bellerive.
“My goal in my career is just to get better every year,” Thomas said. “Even if it’s just a little bit better. I feel like this year I’m a little bit better than I was last year, and that year I was a little bit better than I was the second year.”
Taking a look at his progress, we’ve seen a more consistent player this season. He missed six cuts in 2017 and has just one this season – not counting the team-format Zurich Classic – finishing inside the top 25 in all but one start when he’s played four rounds.
Like most great players, the only expectations he seems to care about are his own.
“Being a good friend of his and seeing the way he plays, you can tell that’s where his expectations lie and where his mentality lies,” said two-time major champion Zach Johnson. “He’s a great kid. Just a very chill, loves-to-have-fun kind of guy, enjoys other people’s company but a very fierce competitor.”
He looked every bit the fierce competitor during the final round at Firestone, which he began with a three-shot lead in the final pairing with Rory McIlroy. Thomas shot 1-under 69 to secure the four-shot win while McIlroy needed a late birdie to finish T-6.
Thomas is very much in contention to repeat as Player of the Year, something that hasn’t been done since Tiger Woods won three in a row from 2005-07. He wasn’t winning at quite the same clip, but he trusted his goals were in the right place. He knows five-win seasons aren’t realistic every year, but suddenly it’s not out of the question with three wins and the FedEx Cup playoffs on the horizon. Gwk