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2023 3M Open: Justin Thomas fighting for FedEx Cup Playoffs berth while battling unfamiliar struggles

Justin Thomas finds himself in a precarious position here in the final week of July: on the outside looking in. The 15-time PGA Tour winner arrives at this week’s 3M Open ranked 75th in the FedEx Cup standings and needing a massive two-week stretch in order to qualify for the FedEx Cup Playoffs, which he has done the prior eight seasons as a card holder.

While it is true he would be well inside the top 125 cut off in previous years, this year has been anything but ordinary. With the PGA Tour trimming the number of players gaining entry into the postseason, Thomas added starts at the 3M Open — and next week’s Wyndham Championship — as a means to climb inside the newly coveted top 70.

“This is a good chance for me to learn a little bit about myself and push myself and become better.” said Thomas. “I mean, this game, nothing’s given to you. I’ve had great chances to win the FedExCup the last five or six years, and now I’m trying to make the Playoffs. That’s just the way that this sport is. And it can happen to anybody, so you’ve just got to go out and get it, and that’s what I’m going to do these last two weeks. “

So, let’s look back at how Thomas got to this point in the first place.

He began the season in typical fashion by clocking a top-five effort at the first full-field designated event, the WM Phoenix Open. His iron play looked sturdy from afar, and his short game would get him out of trouble when it wasn’t. The putter posed a problem more times than not, but that has been the case the last five years. It was business as usual.

Decent — not great — results started to become commonplace with top-25 finishes at the first two player invitationals. A disappointing Players Championship and a top 10 at the Valspar Championship preceded the first major championship. 

Thomas was stuck on the wrong side of the weather draw at Augusta National and forced to complete his second round Saturday morning amidst cold and rainy conditions. Three bogeys in his final four holes led to the first missed cut of his Masters career.

But just as his iron play began to embark on a downward trend, Thomas finished T25 at the RBC Heritage and entered the weekend in contention at the Wells Fargo Championship where he implemented the Aim Point green reading technique. He would fall off the pace and finish T14.

Still, there nothing to the naked eye to suggest Thomas’s summer was in trouble … until there was. An 8-foot par putt on the 36th hole of his PGA Championship title defense secured a pair of weekend tee times at Oak Hill. Nothing of substance materialized with a T65 finish, but concerns with his patented iron play were flagged.

The calendar flipped to June, and Thomas’s game flipped upside down. A missed cut at the Memorial Tournament happens to the best of them, but an 11-over 81 described as “humiliating” and “embarrassing” at a U.S. Open rarely does. It marked Thomas’ highest round ever in a major championship — a career-worst that would only get worse at The Open when he began with an 11-over 82.

And that brings us to present day. Thomas arrives at TPC Twin Cities without having collected a paycheck in four of the six tournaments since his PGA Championship defense. He arrives having put together the statistically worst season of his career in terms of total strokes gained, strokes gained approach and strokes gained putting with only two top-five finishes to his name — also a career worst.

When his approach play is combined with his off-the-tee numbers, Thomas is gaining +0.69 strokes per round. This is more than one stroke less than 2019 and 2020. Over the course of a tournament, he is four strokes worse than he was just a handful of seasons ago.

The 30-year-old has always been known for his world-class iron play, so when trying to answer the question posed above, it felt like the logical start point: a deeper dive into his approach figures. The answer was immediately revealed.

Per Data Golf, Thomas is losing strokes on approach from two key yardage buckets: 50-100 yards and over 200 yards. Since January 1, he ranks in the 48th percentile from 50-100 yards and the 44th percentile from over 200 yards. He hits a poor shot (one that results in more than -0.50 strokes gained) more than 10% of the time from over 200 yards which puts him in the 4th percentile.

Remember, this is a player we marvel at for his off-speed wedge shots and towering long irons. Those weapons have been holstered in 2023.

Throw in poor wedge play and poor long irons with a freezing putter, then factor in some swing changes, and you get the season Thomas has endured. The numbers are apparent, but the confidence — which is every great golfer’s deadliest weapon — is still there, at least in press conferences and post-round interviews.

Because as bad as he has been, Thomas is still 75th in the season-long race. Should he register top-30 finishes at the 3M Open and Wyndham Championship, Thomas will qualify for the postseason. It may even be enough for captain Zach Johnson to select him for the U.S. Ryder Cup Team.

Thomas is scrutinized because he is so good and because he has been for so long. He has seen good friends Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler climb out of holes, and Thomas plans on and will do the same even if the comparisons may be apples to oranges.

“I’ve talked to them [Jordan and Rickie] about it,” said Thomas. “But I … look, you never want to compare, and I don’t want to say anything that makes what they went through better or worse than it was. I’m not in that position yet. I shouldn’t say ‘yet.’ I don’t plan to be. I’m top-20 whatever player in the world and I won a major championship just a little over a year ago. I feel fine. I mean, I’m still doing a lot of things well. 

“Obviously, like I said at the beginning, the results aren’t there. And I’m also very fortunate, you know, that this run of golf for six months, whatever it is, you know, I feel like the reason it’s being viewed as it is is because of the player that I am and I take a lot of pride in that. But I also know that, at the same time, I’m the kind of player that I can get out of it just fine. I have a lot of faith and belief in myself to know that this is just a challenge and an opportunity for me to grow and get better and really come out of this even better than I have been in the past.”



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