Fewer men have shot 63 in the U.S. Open than have broken 60 on the PGA Tour. Only one player has ever done both, and he did it in the same season.
Asked to choose which he was more proud of, Justin Thomas was reluctant to favor one. But in the context of the game’s annals, Thomas leaned in the direction of the 9-under-par 63 he posted in the third round of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, in Wisconsin.
“The 59 was nice because at least I won the tournament,” Thomas said Monday at Pebble Beach Golf Links, where on Thursday he will make his fifth U.S. Open start. “The 63 was special. It was just an unbelievable day. It was history. The [approach] shot I hit on 18 I would probably never recreate something that difficult again. In the heat of the moment, you kind of go through it. It was 307 [yards to the green], [wind] down off the left and hit a high cut 3-wood to 8 feet and made it.
“And I go back and I’m like, how the hell did I do that? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Actually, at the time, it made plenty of sense. Thomas, the fifth of six players with a 63 in the U.S. Open – with the lowest score in relation to par among them – was in the midst of the finest stretch of his young career. Five months earlier he had torched Waialae Country Club in Honolulu for an 11-under 59 in the opening round of the Sony Open in Hawaii, an event he won wire-to-wire. Two months after the U.S. Open, he captured his first major title, the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, in Charlotte. With five victories that season, he went on to win PGA Tour Player of the Year.
He arrives at Pebble Beach for the 119th U.S. Open not quite in the same form, having gone winless since last August at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. And, in truth, he’s just trying to find his form after taking six weeks off because of a wrist injury, a hiatus that started after the Masters and included sitting out last month’s PGA.
After missing the cut in his return to competition at the Memorial Tournament, Thomas finished T-20 on Sunday at the RBC Canadian Open, which he added to his schedule at the last minute. He needed the reps.
“My game right now, it’s pretty good,” said Thomas, 26, a native of Kentucky who now lives in Jupiter, Fla. “It's obviously not exactly where I’d like it to be. I thought I showed a lot of good signs at Memorial. I just was very … I was rusty mentally. I was making some bad mental mistakes.
“The year has been … it's been weird, it really has. Because I got off to a great start, consistency-wise. I had a couple of great chances to win. I felt like I really should have won LA. I felt like I had a great chance to win Phoenix. It just was two putting rounds away from winning two golf tournaments. And I feel like that’s just been the big difference this year, is my putter. And I still feel good over it, which is what’s frustrating sometimes, is that you can feel great over it, but the ball still won’t go in the hole and you don’t know why sometimes.”
It isn’t from lack of practice. And during his forced sabbatical, all he could do was practice putting. The challenge during that period was not going crazy from boredom. “I did say at Memorial that I was very, very bored,” he said, admitting that he watched most of the PGA on television, even though that was more painful than the injury.
“The hardest thing for him was not touching a club for that long of a period. I don’t think he did that even as a kid in the middle of winter,” said his father, Mike, who has been Justin’s only swing instructor.
The younger Thomas did get refreshed mentally, however, which is never a negative. Especially when competing in the U.S. Open.
Thomas’ best finish in the championship came in that 2017 edition when he couldn’t conjure the same magic he enjoyed in the third round and closed with a 75 to end up T-9. A member of the winning 2013 USA Walker Cup Team, Thomas has made the cut in three of his four U.S. Open appearances, coming up short only in his debut in 2014 at Pinehurst.
“I really do love U.S. Opens, I love the test, the grind,” he said. “They just have a different feel to them, like all the majors do.
“This to me,” he added, “is like when I’m going to have the opportunity to play The Open Championship at St. Andrews, which I haven’t done. Every major kind of has their ‘Oh, wow, you won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach or you won The Open Championship at St. Andrews.’ This is as good as it gets for a U.S. Open.”
Now he just has to get himself back to as good as he can be. Thomas hasn’t been far off this season, but he’s well aware that his ninth tour title occurred a while ago.
“Trust me, I think about it all the time. It is because I feel like I’ve played a lot of really good golf,” he said. “And we all look at my stats quite a bit, and my stats are every bit as good as they were last year, every bit as good as they were in ’17. And that’s crazy. That’s just a part of it. That’s how it goes.
“But I know what I’m capable of. I know that I can get hot. I can get on a little bit of a run sometimes.”
Yes, like two years ago.
“I’m just trying to stay as patient as I can,” Thomas added, “because I don’t know if it will be this week, if it will be in August, if it will not be until next year, I don’t know when I’ll win again. But I know that I miss it and it feels like it’s been a while, and I’m ready to start doing it again. But I feel like I’m doing all the things I need to do. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen when it’s supposed to.”
If it should happen this week, here at Pebble Beach, what an “oh wow” win it would be.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to usopen.com and usga.org.