Why Justin Thomas is underrated

October 23, 2019
Justin Ray

Not yet 27 years old, Justin Thomas is running out of potential ‘firsts’ in his professional golf career.

Major championship? Check. Player of the Year honors? Check. World number one? Done. Team success? How about Walker, Palmer and Presidents Cup wins, plus a 4-1-0 debut mark at the Ryder Cup last year?

His pace frenetic, his success constant, and his trajectory historic, JT is somehow still underrated.

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With his win last week in South Korea, Thomas became just the fifth player since World War II with eleven PGA Tour wins, including a major championship, before the age of 27. The others to accomplish that feat are Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.

Only one player in the last thirty years has won more PGA Tour titles at a younger age than Thomas has – and that’s the unassailable Woods. Over the last four seasons, JT has ten PGA Tour wins, two more than any other player in that span (Dustin Johnson is second, with eight).

And now, in absolute full flight, it’s possible we are about to see the best season yet out of the Alabama product. Thomas has not finished outside the top-12 in any worldwide start since June. During that stretch, he’s racked up a pair of wins and has a scoring average just over 68.

Last season on the PGA Tour, Rory was the only player to average more strokes gained tee-to-green per round than JT. And as for the majors – he’s broken through with a win, but his consistency in them has gone a bit unnoticed: only five players have a better cumulative score to par in the major championships over the last three seasons.

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If Thomas improves some of his putting metrics, there might not be a limit to what he can achieve in 2020. Last season, Justin ranked 4th on Tour in strokes gained total despite being 144th in putting. From four to eight feet last season, JT made a 65% clip, ranked 154th. An improvement just to Tour average in that statistic – up to 68.4% – would be worth about eight strokes over the course of a season. A move into the top-50 in that stat would be worth as much as many as 14 strokes.

Thomas is the betting favorite this week at the Zozo Championship in Japan, the first-ever official PGA Tour event held in that country. With four PGA Tour victories in Asia already, it would be no surprise if JT’s momentum carried him to career title number 12 this week.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Tiger has averaged 23.45 World Ranking points earned per start for his career, most of any player all-time. Nicolas Colsaerts got 24 World Ranking points for winning the French Open last week.

NOTES ON KEY PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

– Speaking of Woods, this week the world’s tenth-ranked player makes his first start since the BMW Championship in August and the minor knee surgery that followed. Tiger has a pair of wins in Japan as a pro – he won the Dunlop Phoenix in consecutive years in 2004 and 2005. By the way, in 2005 he was reigning Masters champion, a title he happens to hold this week.

Woods will try to reclaim the early-2019 form that has been absent since that incredible week in April: since the Masters, Tiger has played 17 official rounds. In that span, he’s shot in the 60s only three times, and his scoring average is a pedestrian 71.2.

– Another past Masters champ, Jordan Spieth, flashed signs of his old self last week in South Korea. Spieth racked up 25 birdies on the week, his most in any single PGA Tour event in nearly three years. To say Jordan is completely himself again would be a misnomer – a remarkable putting week (1st in the field) masked that he ranked 50th in greens hit and tied for last in driving accuracy.

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– Reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year Rory McIlroy begins his defense of that title this week. The season opener for defending POY’s has been a mixed bag in recent years: McIlroy himself missed the cut at the Honda Classic in 2015, while Brooks Koepka won the CJ Cup in his season debut last year. Rory averaged a staggering 2.55 strokes gained total per round last season on the PGA Tour, the best single-season average by a player not named Woods (stat kept since 2004).

Louis Oosthuizen returns to action in his first worldwide start in two months. Quietly, Louis showed immense improvement on the greens in 2019: he jumped more than 60 spots from his 2018 rank in strokes gained putting, and nearly 100 spots in total putting.

– Another big name making his 2019-2020 PGA Tour debut this week is Xander Schauffele. With four wins already to his credit, Schauffele could be 2020’s breakout superstar in the men’s game: across the last two seasons, his scoring average jumped from 55th to 11th, in strokes gained tee-to-green he went from 62nd to 11th, and in strokes gained total he went from 46th to 8th. Overall, Schauffele improved by 20 positions or more in all six marquee strokes gained categories tracked by the PGA Tour.

The biggest leap in Xander’s game, though, came in bogey avoidance. In 2018, he ranked 121st on the PGA Tour in that statistic. Last season? 12th.