On The Verge Of Missing Playoffs, Justin Thomas Learning Meritocracy The Hard Way

As much as Justin Thomas is trying to look ahead at what he hopes lies around the corner, two memories confronted him Tuesday at the Wyndham Championship.

It was in 2009 when Thomas made his PGA Tour debut at this tournament as a 16-year-old on a sponsor exemption. He opened with a 65. He wound up missing the 54-hole cut and left with dreams of playing on the PGA Tour “for a really long time.”

“I just can’t believe that was 14 years ago,” he said. “That’s pretty wild.”

Another memory was more recent and a bit jarring.

It was 350 days ago when Thomas, already a two-time PGA champion with 15 wins and over $50 million in career earnings, sat in a Delaware hotel room as part of a players-only meeting that would reshape the model of the PGA Tour.

The idea was for the top players to compete against each other as many as 17 times a year for $20 million purses. Many of the middle class on the PGA Tour failed to see the opportunity to be in those elevated events. They saw it as a mechanism for the rich to get richer.

Thomas was among the rich. Now he’s among the desperate.

He goes into the final tournament of the PGA Tour’s regular season at No. 79 in the FedEx Cup. Only the top 70 advance to the postseason this year, meaning Thomas has to finish 18th to even have a mathematical chance. He has only two such finishes in his last 10 tournaments.

Without making it to the FedEx Cup playoffs, Thomas will be on the sidelines for a month. Worse yet, it would make it increasingly difficult for Zach Johnson to use a captain’s pick on him for the Ryder Cup in Rome.

Thomas isn’t alone, of course. Also on the wrong side of the top 70 bubble are Shane Lowry and Adam Scott, Gary Woodland and Billy Horschel.

They have the pedigree. They don’t have the performance.

“This is a perfect … like, this is golf,” Thomas said. “What is happening this year, it happens every single year. Someone of my caliber, a top player, I’m not having a bad season. I just haven’t won anything, haven’t finished tournaments off how I want.”

Yes, it happens every year, and he knows this from experience.

His best friend since they were 14 is Jordan Spieth, who had a slump so severe he went three years without a win and nearly fell out of the top 100 in the world. Another close pal is Rickie Fowler, who last year made the top 125 for the postseason only because of all the LIV Golf players who were suspended and removed from the list.

Both are back on track — Fowler is at No. 9 in the FedEx Cup, Spieth at No. 30.

Statistics indicate Thomas isn’t hitting as many fairways. He ranks outside the top 125 on the PGA Tour in hitting greens in regulation and scrambling, two of his strengths, and his putting stands out as the biggest culprit. He doesn’t look awful. But scores don’t lie.

“I know I’m really, really close to playing some really, really good golf,” Thomas said. “The reality is I need to play well this week to give that an opportunity to come out. That’s the unfortunate but also realistic part of where I’m at right now.”

It hasn’t been from a lack of trying.

He added the Rocket Mortgage Classic last month and missed the cut. After another missed cut at the British Open, he had no choice but to add the 3M Open last week in Minnesota, where he figures two bad swings cost him five shots and ultimately another weekend off.

This is the last chance, for Thomas and dozens of others. The difference is Thomas has never missed the playoffs since his rookie year in 2015. He’s been to the Tour Championship the last seven years and won the FedEx Cup in 2017.

His job is not on the line. Thomas has a five-year exemption from winning the PGA Championship in 2022. He can still play his way into the $20 million events next year, and he certainly would be a prime candidate for an invitation.

Still, this is foreign territory for the 30-year-old Thomas, and it’s uncomfortable. But he’s not ducking the situation. He spoke openly after missing the cut at Royal Liverpool, before the tournament last week in Minnesota and again on Tuesday.

“There’s just guys that have played better than me this season, whether they’re ranked first in the world or 101st in the world,” he said. “But now I have an opportunity to play well this week, get into the playoffs and to go to three courses that I love.

“I have a chance to have one of the craziest endings to a PGA Tour season, and I’m going to try to do that.”

About all he can do is look at the Wyndham Championship as an opportunity.

That’s what golf is meant to be, whether a player is at No. 1 or No. 101 in the world, whether he has $50 million or $5 million in career earnings. There are no guarantees — not on the PGA Tour, anyway — even for players drawing up plans for a new model last year in Delaware.