Justin Thomas falters with No. 1 ranking on his mind

Tyler Horka

Justin Thomas had a lot at stake on Sunday at Austin Country Club.

A World Golf Championship, the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings and a bevy of momentum heading into the Masters.

He left ACC without any of it after losing both of his matches on the final day of the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play.

Thomas looked like the undoubted favorite through group play, winning all three of his matches. He carried over his tidy play into the Round of 16 and quarterfinals, where he soundly beat Si Woo Kim and Kyle Stanley, respectively.

But on Sunday, he hit a buzzsaw. Or rather, a Bubba-saw. Bubba Watson, the tournament’s eventual champion, took the first hole of their semifinal match and never looked back in a dominant 3 & 2 victory.

At times, Watson made Thomas look flat out uncomfortable on the golf course. Thomas missed a short putt for birdie on the fifth hole. Watson calmly drained his birdie try to go 2 up. Watson proceeded to bomb his drive 358 yards on the par-5 sixth. Thomas hooked his 270-yard tee shot into the left rough with tree trouble in sight.

Though Thomas recovered to make birdie, his first of the day, Watson rolled in a 25-foot eagle putt to give himself a 3-up advantage. From then on, it was clear who the better player was — not Thomas, who came into the day as hot as anybody and with so much to gain.

“I had a really hard time getting focused and being worried about my match as opposed to things that can happen and thinking about potentially this afternoon,” Thomas said on the 16th green after both he and Watson made birdies to halve the hole and finish the match. “But I just didn’t play well and Bubba played really well.”

Watson refuted that and said Thomas actually played pretty well. He praised Thomas’ iron shots but was surprised at how poorly he putted. Thomas had plenty of opportunities to keep the match within reach, but he couldn’t get any to drop — much to the surprise of Watson. What did the 11-time TOUR winner expect?

“Justin Thomas making every putt and me losing, him looking at me and going, ‘I’m No. 1,’” Watson said. “Truly, he’s playing so good.”

Thomas’ play of late has him slated as a favorite in nearly every tournament he enters — good news for the 24-year-old with the Masters around the corner. He won the Honda Classic last month and finished as the runner up at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship, where he lost to Phil Mickelson in a playoff.

But as he prepares for the Masters, Thomas will be caught thinking about what could have been. He let a WGC title slip away in Mexico and did the same this week in Austin. With it went the coveted world No. 1 ranking, which he has admitted to wanting desperately — too desperately, maybe.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest,” Thomas said moments after his loss to Watson.

Going from being the tournament favorite and potentially securing a No. 1 ranking to having to play in a consolation match can’t be easy, and Thomas let it show. He conceded the very first hole of the third-place bout with Alex Noren.

When he fell 3 down with a bogey at the par-3 11th, it was clear that Thomas had lost all of his positive energy from the first few days of the event. He lost another hole at No. 13 to fall 4 down, effectively ending his chances of winning the match.

Shoulders slouched, Thomas blocked his tee shot into the bunker at No. 15. He slowly trotted up the fairway, even asking his caddie, “What time is it?” as if he’d rather be anywhere else than 4 down in a consolation match when Watson had just routed Kevin Kisner 7 and 6 moments earlier to claim the Walter Hagen Cup.

Thomas knocked his approach into more sand and quickly walked up to hack it onto the green, where he took off his hat to concede the hole and end the match without even attempting to line up his putt.

Noren still gave Thomas credit even though it was clear that he was not at full strength.

“It’s great to play against the best, especially to beat them,” Noren said.  

When he has time to recover from a painful Sunday at ACC, Thomas will realize that Noren is probably right: he’s still playing like the world’s best player. His final day at the event stands more as an anomaly than a predictor of his future form.

And to backtrack on prior statements, Thomas doesn’t necessarily need — or want — that revered ranking anyway. It’s just a number.

“In the end it might be a good thing going to Augusta without that,” Thomas said. “I get to go do what I was going to and let (Dustin Johnson) have all that pressure.”