The 2022 PGA Championship winner, Justin Thomas, is no stranger to pressure on the golf course – he has a reputation for ‘getting on the birdie train’ and shooting low scores. So, how does he deal with the stress of expectation when he’s ‘going low’?
RSNG caught up with the world-beating top-ten 29-year old to ask, does he ruthlessly set short-term targets, or just go with the flow and play what’s in front of him?
RSNG You’re known for getting on ‘the birdie train’ and shooting crazy low scores. But some pros and most amateurs get nervous if they make lots of birdies. How do you deal with the stress of expectation when you are ‘going low’?
JUSTIN THOMAS, PGA CHAMPIONSHIP WINNER “Personally, if I’m not calm then I don’t feel like I’m going to play my best stuff consistently. So, I think when I am in the right place in my mind, I am able to go on a run of back-to-back birdies. When I’m not totally comfortable with my game, I know that I can trust my own ability to at least get a decent score and not be too far down the leaderboard.
“But to go on a run – or get on the ‘birdie train’ as you say – I feel like I need to be in the zone. You need to have the control to go low and you may be able to put the ball in the right places, but if the putter’s not hot then it won’t matter. Your whole game has to be together.
“Different players deal with things in different ways. Some can shake themselves out of it by going aggressive instead of laying up – personally I think golf is more about working things out mentally – that’s the way I play.”
RSNG Do you set targets for tournaments and competitive rounds, or do you go with the flow?
JUSTIN THOMAS “Well, the pressure of playing is enough so when you set any targets, you’re adding to that pressure. That’s not something I like to do. I also like to go with the flow, as such. It’s one of those things where you look at the tournaments on the calendar, the courses you think your game suits and hope that everything works together to give you a solid few days.
“I’ve gone close in events I thought my game was perfect for and then I’ve thought my game may not suit a particular course or I wasn’t in the right place, or whatever and I’ve done better than I thought.
“The additional pressure is the media – the smart players are those who can block that out. I’m not winning for anyone else but me and my team, but sometimes it does feel like there are so many other people involved.”
I’ll always tell amateur golfers the difference between playing badly and playing well may only be a few simple maneuvers away
RSNG Do you still visualize shots before you take them? How important is that to your game?
JUSTIN THOMAS “For me, I think it’s more about going through the same routine and hopefully that means my shots will, more often than not, go where I want them to. In the past I was too often fond of getting ahead of myself and trying to trust my swing instead of concentrating on the shot.
“Now, trusting your swing is not a bad thing to do, but if it’s not at the place you want it to be or where it should be, you can’t trust it. So, doing all of the hard work on the range, with different shots in different conditions, is really the only way of making sure that you can trust your swing and your game.
“As long as I make sure that the club is not too much on the inside in the takeaway, I know that’s going to reduce the number of times that I hook the ball.
“So, I have to make sure that I go through the same drill where I make sure when I rotate the club, it’s in line with my hands with the shaft parallel to the ground. Then, I address and swing normally. In that sense, the correction process and the double-checking is not so difficult, and that’s why I’ll always tell amateur golfers the difference between playing badly and playing well may only be a few simple manoeuvres away.”
RSNG How much working out do you do with your trainer Kolby Tullier, to help your game?
JUSTIN THOMAS “It will be different depending on the tournament or the size of the event, but usually it will be what Kolby calls ‘loading day’ on a Monday. That’s where he wants me to feel like I can be explosive and that will help me be ready for the first swing on the range or the tee, and that’s so crucial.
“Then there’s movement exercises every morning in addition to those, plus dynamic work. It has helped me try to reduce the amount of time that I use on the range to do practice swings until I am happy with it, even before I hit a ball.
“I get treatment after each round and there are still exercises for movement in preparation for the next day, so it’s an ongoing process.”
In the gym, Monday will be what usually it will be what Kolby calls loading day
RSNG What’s the best bit of mental coaching you’ve ever had as a pro golfer?
JUSTIN THOMAS “I think not just as a golfer, or a sports athlete, the mental side of things is just as important as in anyone’s life. Some people think that when you’re a famous sportsman, everything is great because you’ve got money, and that’s not always the case.
“I’ve been in positions where I felt at my lowest ebb, that nothing in my life was where it should have been, that even things could have been better for my family. At the time, I just thought that I was being hard on myself and I was just in a rut.
“As I said earlier, if I’m not in the right state of mind, then I’m not going to play well and while many may think that it’s not the end of the world shooting some good golf, it can have a major effect on your mental health if your career isn’t going as you want it to.
RSNG And this was going on right across all parts of your life?
JUSTIN THOMAS “Yeah, we know what happened last year and it does impact you across the board.
“I thought I would have to overcome a number of challenges in my professional career, but I never factored that as being one of them. And of course, there is the embarrassment attached to it – there’s also a lot of education that I was keen to undertake. It’s not just about what you think and how you feel, it’s about how you portray things in language.
“I’ve always counted myself as a totally respectful person of everyone else around me, yet if the language I use doesn’t reflect that, then I have work to do.”
If I’m not in the right state of mind, then I’m not going to play well
RSNG You seem to have emerged in a good place?
JUSTIN THOMAS “Well, you know, education is a powerful thing, and I read a lot of things, watched a lot of things and spoke to many different people so as to make sure that I never returned to that place in my life, again. So, at the time, that was a fairly uncomfortable thing to deal with, but it was necessary and it’s made me a much better person.”
RSNG What’s coming up for you?
JUSTIN THOMAS “After a strange couple of years my total focus now is on golf. I feel an increasing sense of relief that hopefully I can get back used to playing in front of people and just enjoying golf without all the other stuff going on around the sides.
“That’s exactly how life was a couple of years or so ago and I will be honest enough to say I took it for granted. I won’t ever do that again and I am looking forward to just going out there without having to think about controversy, or the pandemic, or anything else. I feel quite free again now for the first time in a while.”
WHAT NEXT? Want another golfing great exclusive interview? Then read our Q&A with World Number One, Jon Rahm here.