Helping Justin Thomas Set 2019 Goals

October 22, 2018
Jake Nichols

Setting goals is a critical part of success. A 2011 meta-analysis on the impact of setting specific group goals (“win twice, win scoring title”) showed a large positive effect on subsequent achievement compared to groups that set non-specific goals (“play well”).

For the last two seasons Justin Thomas has shared the goals he and his team set for the upcoming season with grades on whether he achieved those goals or not. Given that the 2019 season is fast approaching (or already here if you’re on the PGA Tour!), now is the time to start planning what you want to achieve in the coming year. Let’s examine how we at 15th Club think about and propose goals to our clients.

Our Process

First, we advise clients to conceptualize where they want to be in by the end of the next season. Many of our clients are battling to jump into the top 50, 25, or 10 in the world. Thomas himself indicated one of his goals was to reach #1 in the world. It’s important to set goals that are aspirational and give you something to work towards, but are achievable as well. It’s not realistic for a steady top 100 player to want to become #1 in the world in a year; it’s much more realistic for them to become a top 50 player in the world and play all the majors and WGC events.

Second, we break-down with our clients what it entails to achieve those goals, where they stand now, and where the gaps are that they need to close. A top 50 player who wants to push toward top 10 in the world needs to pick-up 0.5 or more shots per round on the field. A steady top 5 player who wants to become the best like Thomas probably needs to pick-up around a quarter to half a shot as well.

It’s important to stop now and discuss the importance of setting goals based on good processes rather than good results. A large number of players will go into the next season with the goal of winning at least one tournament. Putting aside how realistic that is for a given player, winning a tournament requires a number of different factors to end up in a players’ favour – more than just playing well that week.

A player who plays well enough to win most weeks can still fail to win because they catch the wrong end of the draw weather-wise, or run into a hot competitor playing even better, or get an unlucky bounce which dooms their chances. A player who plays well enough to win most weeks can still fail to win because they catch the wrong end of the draw weather-wise, or run into a hot competitor playing even better, or get an unlucky bounce which dooms their chances. At the 2012 Deutsche Bank, Tiger Woods and Louis Oosthuizen demolished an elite PGA Tour field by +16.6 and +17.6 SG – totals that would win more than 95% of PGA Tour events. However, Rory McIlroy did them one better and gained +18.6 SG en route to winning.

In the same way, if a player is looking to become world #1 they can set their goal at the level of the typical world #1 performer, but it’s always possible another player has an even better season and raises the bar beyond that level.

Instead, we recommend relying on consistent measures of performance like Strokes Gained or our Performance Index. Saying you want to gain +1.5 SG per round in 2019 is a much more concrete goal than saying you want to win twice; it also is independent of any other player’s performance.

The next step is to make plans to close those gaps (“How do I pick up 0.5 shots per round?”, “What do I need to improve?”) and then execute. This is where the full team becomes involved in breaking-down where you can potentially improve and putting in motion plans to achieve those improvements.

A lot of Thomas’ goals for 2017-18 seemed to come down to greater consistency (making all his cuts, top 10 in half of his events, less than 5 double bogeys). While many of his goals are result based, he could also make process based goals (lose 2 or more strokes in a round less than 5% of the time, never lose strokes to the field in back to back rounds, produce 5 or more events where he performs well enough to typically win).

The final step is to do what Thomas just did and evaluate how you performed relative to those goals at the end of your season. Then use your successes and failures to plan for the next season. Honestly evaluate where you met your goals and where you fell short. Which of those goals are still relevant for the next year and are there any where you can reach a bit further and push your boundaries?

2018-19 Goals for Justin Thomas

Conceptualize where you want to be…
Our current Performance Index metric judges Thomas as the third best player in the world behind Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose. He’s 4th best in the World Rankings. Ranking #1 in both categories is very achievable for him 12 months from now so we will set goals that will position him to become the best player in the world.

What does that entail, where are you now, where are the gaps?
Thomas is one of the most well-rounded players in the world. In the four major strokes gained categories he ranked 30th, 3rd, 19th, and 44th on the PGA Tour in 2018 and 30th, 6th, 27th, and 45th on the PGA Tour in 2017. Based on his current level and the typical #1 in world level, he needs to improve by about 0.3 SG per round overall in 2019.

The most obvious gap between Thomas and other elite players is off the tee where he has yet to fully harness his elite power to produce elite SG Driving results. He ranked 12th best in 2018 in terms of driving distance on holes where most players hit driver in 2018, but only 30th best in SG Off the Tee as measured by the PGA Tour. The eleven players longer than him had a median rank of 9th in SG Off the Tee and gained +0.64 SG Off the Tee on average – a quarter of a shot better than Thomas.

How do we close that gap?
The difference? Those eleven players hit about 3 more fairways or first cuts over 72 holes than Thomas – worth about 1 stroke gained on the field over 72 holes or 0.25 shots per round. That size improvement in SG Driving for Thomas would boost him to about 10th on Tour in SG Driving (+0.65 SG Driving per round) and would almost entirely account for the about 0.3 SG per round needed to close the gap to world #1.

This is where Thomas’ team comes in and evaluates why he’s coming up short in terms of accuracy. Is it because his swing is less consistent hole to hole? Are there any longer-term mechanical flaws? Was there a period this year where the process (quality of swing) was producing the desired results (straighter drives)? Are there any course management concerns? This must be a collaborative process involving everyone in his camp working to identify whether there are issues to correct and putting in place plans to improve moving forward.

Judging whether you have achieved your goals provides accountability for yourself and your team. Working closely with 15th Club’s analytics team throughout the season provides you with an up-to-date view of your game throughout the season. Our software, Waggle, gives pro golfers a comprehensive overview on where your game stands across the PGA and European Tours, and our regular reports and communication allow you to evaluate whether you’re on track to hit or miss your targets.