GREENSBORO, N.C. — Justin Thomas’ press conference after his third-round 66 on Saturday raised a few questions, but the most prominent of them was this: How can a Sunday at the Wyndham Championship present a kind of anxiety that he hasn’t felt before?
This is a guy who has won two major championships (one of them in a playoff), two WGCs, two playoff events, played Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups, and competed in two NCAA championship matches. No disrespect to the Wyndham—it’s a longstanding PGA Tour event and always has some sneaky fun up its sleeves at the end of the regular season—but you wouldn’t think the stakes at Sedgefield Country Club could rattle Thomas at this stage in his career.
Normally, it wouldn’t. But these aren’t normal circumstances; Thomas is playing for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps a spot on Zach Johnson’s Ryder Cup team, and the reality of playing a tournament he would not have been at otherwise, in pursuit of future goals, has introduced a kind pressure in quality, if not magnitude, is unlike anything he’s faced before.
“It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s a different kind of nerves,” Thomas said in front of the gathered media as a crowd of autograph-hunting children shouted his name in the background. “It’s a lot harder than trying to win a golf tournament, in my opinion. I think when you’re trying to win a tournament, and if you don’t win it’s a bummer, but you still had a great week.”
“If I just don’t get it done for what I need to get done this week,” he added, “then it sucks and my year’s over.”
Despite the novel dread that accompanies this unplanned trip to the Wyndham, Thomas is clearly handling it well. He’s nine under for the tournament, was in a tie for 10th place on Saturday afternoon as the leaders played and was projected that No. 72 in the FedEx Cup Playoffs standings. Thomas was still not in the top 70 who reach the playoffs, but the third round was a solid step in the right direction after an uninspiring 70 in his opening round. If he can come close to repeating his 65-66 performance of the last two days on Sunday, he’ll likely vault into the playoffs.
Thomas also continues to play for being included on the American Ryder Cup team., and he’s trying like crazy to keep those thoughts out of his head on the course. When he was asked if it might give him some added motivation, he was quick to shake his head.
“No. That’s hurt me all year,” he said. “I want to make the Ryder Cup team so bad. It’s so important to me. … I legitimately would rather make the Ryder Cup than the playoffs—which is really, really messed up to say, but it’s just the truth. But because of that, I think that’s why I played so poorly the last month and a half or two months. … I’m putting so much pressure on myself to play well; it’s very similar to what happened to me in 2016. I felt like I started to try so hard at the end of the year, when if I just would have kept doing what I was doing and trust my ability and my talent, then it could have been good enough.”
It’s impossible to know how much Thomas needs to do to make the team, and he wasn’t interested in the prediction game. Maybe Johnson has already seen enough, maybe Thomas needs to do so much more. (When asked whether he might consider going to Europe to play a handful of events to prove something should he miss the playoffs, Thomas deferred, yet didn’t say a definitive no.)
But if Johnson is looking for an excuse to take him on the team—Thomas is the most successful Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup player of his generation—pulling off a last-minute coup in Greensboro to make the playoffs is a pretty good one.
That’s what faces him on Sunday—the new kind of nerves that have surprised him all week, but magnified inside an 18-hole cauldron.
“Fortunately for me, I’ve been in some tough situations before with majors, trying to win tournaments and team events where I feel like I’ve had a lot of pressure on me,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to kind of use some of those past experiences for tomorrow if I’m feeling any of it.”
But perhaps the most relevant experience isn’t those high-stakes events, but the period in 2016 where his game lagged because of how badly he wanted to play the Ryder Cup. If so, rest assured Thomas is aware of that, too.
“Hopefully I learn from my mistake,” he said.
You get the feeling Johnson might be hoping too.