ST> LOUIS — Much has changed for Justin Thomas since he left Quail Hollow a year ago with the PGA Championship trophy. There’s the stature that comes with winning a major, the brief ascension to No. 1 in the world, the demands on his time, the scrutiny.
And the parking.
As the defending champion, Thomas enjoys a prime spot for his courtesy car at Bellerive.
“Having a parking spot I can pull into is nice,” he said Wednesday. “I was joking with my parents that I’ve won a lot of tournaments that I don’t get that luxury.”
He’d love the same luxury when the PGA Championship moves to May next year at Bethpage Black in New York, but Thomas dismissed the idea that he’s under more pressure to repeat as champion.
“The part of defending isn’t as difficult as just winning any golf tournament in general. I mean, any player here this week, it’s very hard to win,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t make it any harder that I’m trying to defend.”
The last man to successfully defend the Wanamaker Trophy was Tiger Woods in 2007. Woods also achieved the feat in 1999-2000. Before Tiger, you have to go back to Denny Shute in 1937 to find a repeat champion.
Thomas logged top-25 finishes at both the Masters and U.S. Open before missing the cut at the British Open two weeks ago. That led him to call a team meeting with his father and coach, Mike Thomas, and Jimmy Johnson, his caddie. He was determined to get everyone on the same page about expectations.
“Between the three of us we kind of came up with some different ideas or things that we all felt that each person needs to do for us to perform our best and to have the best chance to win every week,” he said.
The first outing for the team after hitting that reset button was last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone in Ohio. The result was a runaway four-stroke win against one of the strongest fields assembled all year. It was his ninth win on the PGA Tour and his third this season.
“You can learn as much as you want from anything. It’s just the hard part is sometimes recognizing what you learned,” Thomas reflected at Bellerive. “I learned from the British Open and I missed the cut. I learned from the Travelers when I finished 50th or whatever I finished. You learn every week. It’s sometimes the lessons are bigger than others.”
The biggest lesson Thomas has learned is patience, according to his father.
“That’s all we’ve preached for two or three years — to be more patient. To be smarter,” Mike Thomas said as he watched his son practice on the eve of his title defense. “He’s maturing and getting better about handling bogeys and playing smarter shots.”
Thomas will need to call upon that patience that his father has been preaching. He is playing the first two rounds with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. That all-star threesome played together for the first two rounds of the Genesis Open at Riviera earlier this year and attracted a raucous crowd.
“It will be pretty crazy out there,” Thomas said. The group goes off at 9:23 a.m. ET.
The mental game that Team Thomas has focused on has little to do with the particular pressure of defending or the circus atmosphere of the group.
“I think his mindset the first year or two out here was he had to be perfect, and he realizes if he’s just smart he has enough good shots to make up for his bad shots. Just accepting bad shots that he didn’t do such a good job of accepting a year or two ago,” Mike Thomas said.
It helps when his kid hits fewer poor shots than most guys on Tour. This season Thomas ranks second in strokes gained tee to green and third in strokes gained approach the green. Which is why the strategy is unchanged from a year ago in Charlotte, N.C.
“The plan is still the same,” Mike Thomas said. “His confidence level is higher, particularly after last week, but you just try to do what you can each week, regardless of where it is.“