Justin Thomas passes the Fortinet test

Justin Thomas, 2023 Fortinet Championship,(Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Justin Thomas, 2023 Fortinet Championship,(Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images) /

The Justin Thomas who finished fifth at this week’s Fortinet Championship did not look like the same Justin Thomas who stumbled blindly through most of the 2023 season.

But it did look a lot like the Justin Thomas who Ryder Cup Captain Zach Johnson picked to play in Rome later this month.

At least for this one week in Napa, most of the elements that carried Thomas to the top of the game just a few years ago were solidly in place. They did not lead to a victory, but at 14-under they had to be heartening.

Thomas had two finishes at this level last season, but both came a long time ago. He finished fifth at the small-field Hero World Challenge in early December, and fourth at the full-field WM Phoenix Open in February.

Those and a tie for ninth at the Travelers in June were the only true highlights of the worst season of Thomas’ professional career, one in which he missed six cuts and failed to qualify for the Tour Championship Series. His stroke average rose from 69.6 in 2022 to 70.6 in 2023.

That’s why major eyebrows were raised when Johnson made him a captain’s pick for Rome. Napa is not Rome and the Fortinet is hardly the Ryder Cup. But if Thomas’ game holds to the form he showed this week, he will justify Johnson’s faith in him.

The table below illustrates everything Johnson is counting on with respect to Thomas, and it also illustrates the reality of this past week in Napa. It itemizes Thomas’ performances in the four major Strokes Gained categories at three reference points: The 2017-18 season, when he was at his peak; the 2022-23 season, when he hit rock bottom; and Napa.

"Time period                       Off The Tee        Approach            Around                 Putting2017-18                                 0.408                  0.880                  0.307                     0.2732022-23                                 0.212                  0.327                  0.411                   -0.222Fortinet                                   0.057                  1.245                  0.709                     0.794"

The eye-opening data point here is also the single most determinative piece of data on Tour, Strokes Gained Approaching the Green. In the seasons when he was good, that was Thomas’ forte.

Justin Thomas finds form in California

Between 2017 and 2022, he never failed to pick up at least seven-tenths of a stroke on the field via that talent. Yet last year his approach irons went haywire, producing only a hair more than three-tenths of a stroke advantage.

At Fortinet, Thomas looked like his old self standing sixth in the full field at that skill at 1.245.

His putting turnaround also stood out. Thomas has never been an especially effective putter, picking up at best a third of a stroke and sometimes verging into negative figures. His 2022-23 performance was especially dismal, with a personal worst -0.222 Strokes Gained.

Yet at Fortinet, Thomas putted lights out, at least for him. He was 18th in the field in Strokes Gained Putting. That may not be dominant but given the strength of other elements of his game it’s good enough to contend, as he in fact did.

Next. Approach, as always, is key to success. dark

The question now is whether Thomas can use Fortinet as a launch pad to success at the Ryder Cup. That’s a tall order, but at least Thomas laid the groundwork.