By January, Justin Thomas had already won three times this season, successfully defended his first title, won in back-to-back weeks, shot 59 and set a PGA Tour tournament scoring record.
His mind was already three months ahead to Augusta National.
“I’m so excited for the Masters,” Thomas said after sweeping the Hawaii swing. “I said that as soon as I finished last year, as soon as I finished the majors last year. I feel like it’s a course that’s really good for my game. It was so tough last year and I wasn’t playing well to where I didn’t have much. It’s just such a fun place to play and a cool atmosphere. I’m so ready to get back there.”
It’s not unusual for golfers to daydream about Augusta, but Thomas is particularly focused on the Masters. He’s already made several trips to Augusta National to play the course with club member Jeff Knox and get more and more comfortable with a place he intends to be a factor at for years to come.
“Just playing,” he said of his scouting trips. “You figure stuff out or find little things without even trying to. It’s not like I’m going out there with a goal or anything, but just playing and if I learn something that’s great.”
Knox – the Masters’ designated marker and the father of Thomas’ Alabama teammate, Lee Knox – is a frequently requested member companion by tour pros visiting Augusta, and Thomas has tried to glean what he can from him for two consecutive years.
“Mostly just stuff on the greens and course management,” Thomas said. “He knows it so well so it’s really just watching him plot his way around more than anything.”
Thomas got his first taste of the Masters last year, finishing tied for 39th at 10-over par with his only sub-par round a Sunday 71. He walked away understanding more than ever the value of patience in a major.
“I didn’t feel like it overwhelmed me, I just didn’t play well,” he said. “I just hit it poorly and every day I played in the toughest conditions with the tee times. I was kind of behind the eight ball to start. Every year I’m sure you’ll get more comfortable.”
Is he ready to win there now?
“I was ready to win last year,” he said.
His confidence will be justifiably higher when he returns as the longtime friend of 2015 Masters champ Jordan Spieth has stationed himself among the top 10 players in the world. His goals have grown along with his success.
“I have higher goals set for myself,” he said, without sharing any specifics. “I built my schedule this year around the majors. I feel like I’m in a better place in my game and mentally to where I can give the majors a bit of a run this year and hopefully get into contention. I guess that’s just where I’m at right now.”
After barely missing out on the 2015 Tour Championship as a rookie, Thomas stepped up last year in his sophomore season on tour. He notched his first win early in Malaysia to book his ticket to Augusta, ended up making the cut in all four majors and tied for third place four times including the Players Championship.
Yet he considered 2016 a bit of a goal-oriented letdown due to inconsistency – especially falling short of earning a spot on the Ryder Cup team despite finishing sixth at East Lake right before Davis Love III announced his final captain’s pick.
“I didn’t meet too many of (my goals) last year,” he said. “(The Ryder Cup) was the No. 1 goal I had last year, and that really, really hurt not making that team. I had a great opportunity. I should have if I just would have played like I know I could have or how I felt like I should have.”
Thomas took the momentum from the Tour Championship and ratcheted it up yet another level to start his third tour season. He repeated in Malaysia before sweeping at Kapalua and Waialae, where he opened with 59, led wire-to-wire and set a PGA Tour scoring record with a 27-under par 253. Two other top-10 finishes helped move him up to No. 7 in the world.
He secured a tight lead, blown lead and a huge lead to burnish his confidence portfolio.
“The fact I just won a lot of different ways is huge to me,” he said. “I drove it a lot better in those events that I won and was making the golf course as easy as possible with a lot of wedges in my hand. I feel like I’m really good with my wedges so they’re scoring clubs for me. I was just making golf as easy as I could.”
Thomas demands a lot from himself, and as his name hits leaderboards more and more often his goals follow suit.
“I expect to be in contention every time I play,” he said. “I’ve always expected this of myself. It just hadn’t happened yet. Now that it’s happening, I continue to have the same expectations. I just need to continue to put the work in and just be ready every time I tee it up.”
After his hot start, Thomas cooled slightly in a grueling four-week stretch before dialing back as his focus on the Masters drew closer.
“I go to a tournament to win, and if you win, it takes a lot out of you and you don’t want to be going into Augusta not feeling 100 percent,” he said of his plan not to play Bay Hill and Houston and make another scouting trip to Augusta. “Just making sure that I’m fresh and I’m ready.”