PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – Justin Thomas considers it possible to win “eight, nine, 10, 11 times in a season.”
The 27-year-old is fresh off a three-win PGA TOUR campaign and has started this new season strongly by finishing in the top 12 in all four of his starts.
Thomas also knows that to reach his full potential, all facets of his game must be maximized. To that end, he has pursued putting improvement with coach John Graham – the two connected this summer via a mutual friend, then formalized their relationship at the U.S. Open in September.
The previous two seasons saw Thomas rank No. 144 and No. 112 in Strokes Gained: Putting – while finishing third and second in the FedExCup, respectively.
Through the early portion of 2020-21, Thomas has seen an improvement to No. 37 in the TOUR’s preeminent putting statistic. He’s gaining three-quarters of a stroke per round on the greens after losing strokes in each of the last two seasons.
If the Thomas-Graham partnership continues to bear fruit, the sky could be the limit.
“You can always make more putts, but I’ve been consistently better in making more putts,” Thomas said in his pre-tournament press conference at this week’s Mayakoba Golf Classic presented by UNIFIN. “And my bad putting days have been better.
“What I like about John is, same as myself, he’s never satisfied. We’re still working on trying to get better, and figure out what we can do to get ready to start the year next year.”
To that end, Graham flew last weekend from his home in western New York to spend a day with Thomas at The Bear’s Club in south Florida, before Thomas flew to Mexico.
The duo also spent two days walking Winged Foot before the U.S. Open – “walking the course, visualizing, working through certain hole locations and putts from certain places,” Graham said.
Thomas posted the best U.S. Open finish of his career (T8) and is coming off a career-best T4 at the recent Masters Tournament.
The essence of the Thomas-Graham partnership: identifying and preparing for on-course situations.
“It’s very situation-specific … how do I address making this particular putt with this surface, and this ball position?” Graham said. “A lot of the stuff we have to do is on the course or the putting green; how do we tackle this particular problem?
“Him getting different solutions to potential problems, is all he really needed. On the course is where the shot-making can really happen, both regular shots and, in my opinion, putts, so that’s where we want to spend our time.”
With the help of longtime putting coach Matt Killen, Thomas saw marked improvements in setup, stroke and fundamentals. The mechanics were rock-solid.
After finishing back-to-back seasons with negative Strokes Gained: Putting, though, Thomas wanted to explore new ideas in the ‘feel’ area of his work around the greens.
Thomas reached out to Graham, and they spent a day together prior to the Workday Charity Open in July. He proceeded to finish runner-up at Muirfield Village, averaging .78 strokes gained: putting, and the relationship built from there.
“Everybody’s great is great, and good is really good, but it’s, ‘How good is your bad?’ and that’s something I struggled with,” said Thomas of putting performance in recent years. “We couldn’t figure out why or what it was.
“I told Matt, ‘Hey, I’m going to go see John.’ I wanted to see him in an off-week and hear something else and see if he could help us. Matt did such a good job of getting me in a good place to make a good, consistent stroke. My setup has gotten so much better, my stroke has gotten so much better, my fundamentals have gotten so much better.
“But a lot of other aspects of it … the green reading, the speed, understanding what makes putts do a certain thing … I hadn’t really incorporated into my putting. And that’s what John has really helped me with.”
Graham describes the fundamental question of the duo’s work together as, “How do we make more putts?” The veteran putting instructor believes the stroke is the least critical factor in mitigating a putting issue. Extraordinary putters separate themselves through other areas.
Thomas and Graham haven’t done much mechanical stroke work. They’ve focused on green-reading, controlling distance and being more specific with it.
“I think one of his biggest hang-ups was that he felt like mechanics was the way to solve the problem of making more putts,” said Graham, who describes Thomas as a natural feel player. “He would be very feel-oriented with his golf swing and shaping shots, and creating pictures and ideas, and then with his putting stroke, he would lean more on, ‘Well, I have to do it just right. I have to set up just right. I have to choose exactly the right speed.’ It seemed like it was being a little bit confining.
“There are multiple answers that can make a putt go in, whether it’s firm speed with a lower line, or a softer speed with a higher line, and the player gets a say in this … It’s been freeing him up that way to visualize it more as shot-making, as opposed to just roll the ball down this line and hope it goes in.”
Combining strong mechanics and feel concepts, Thomas believes his best putting days – and golf days – are yet to come.
“I feel like I am very close to reeling off a couple (wins) or having a great year,” Thomas said. “But I also understand that this game doesn’t just give you trophies because you’re close. You have to earn it.”
Source: PGA tour