The relationship between Augusta National and Justin Thomas is unwavering yet complicated. Strong yet frustrating.
For a student of the game like Thomas, he appreciates and embraces the history that Augusta National provides.
His results at the Masters, however, haven’t reached the World No. 3’s potential.
Through 36 holes of the 2020 Masters, Thomas is one of four co-leaders at nine-under-par. On a soft golf course, Thomas relied on his strong ball-striking and approach game. His three-under second-round 69 puts him in a stellar position to contend for his second major championship, his first coming at the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow.
“It’s definitely not as low as I feel like I could or should be, but we’re in a good position going into the weekend,” Thomas said to reporters after his round.
Thomas got the typical 36-hole Masters leader treatment on Friday. ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt interviewed the 27-year-old in Butler Cabin, home of the long-standing Green Jacket ceremony on Sunday.
But as Thomas noted, he never walked into Butler Cabin before.
He isn’t a Masters champion (yet), so that’s one reason why. But the other more surprising rationale is Thomas’ underperformance at the Masters, for a consistent winner on the PGA Tour.
In his first Masters in 2016, Thomas finished tied for 39th, with a score to par of plus-10. Every year since, Thomas improved, including his best finish at the Masters to date in 2019 with a tie for 12th.
Only in two of Thomas’ four Masters appearances, he finished the tournament under par. Never before had Thomas shot an under-par first round at Augusta National, until Thursday when he shot 66.
Thomas’ second round didn’t get off to the best of starts, with a double bogey on the first. The recipe to get him back into the tournament was his stellar iron game, leading the field in proximity to the hole for the second round (20 feet, 4 inches).
Thomas was always a great iron player but every year of his PGA Tour career, he ascended as the best approach player in the game. In 2020, Thomas finished first in strokes gained: approach the green (.997 average). At a golf course like Augusta, which rewards those who convert the second shot, Thomas has an edge over the field.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) November 13, 2020
Whether it was hitting a chip shot from the pine straw on the par-5 8th or shaping a shot over the trees to reach the par-5 15th green in two, Thomas utilized his irons effectively.
“You can make so many birdies out here if you have control of your golf ball,” Thomas said. “You’re driving it well. You have a fair amount of short irons into the greens. And the greens are so good, if you get it in the right spots, you can make it from everywhere.”
Thomas isn’t alone atop the leaderboard. He sits in a four-way tie, along with 2016 U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson, Abraham Ancer, and Cameron Smith. Spaniard Jon Rahm sits one back, his second-round incomplete.
22 golfers are within five shots of the lead, demonstrating how close the margins are heading into the Masters weekend.
Thomas knows he hasn’t played close to his best golf. If he’s going to capture that illustrious second major, he will need all parts of his game playing at a superior level.
Past history is irrelevant when you’re in pursuit of a green jacket.
“You have to really throw all the past knowledge out the window this week, as weird as it is,” Thomas said. “A lot of the history and things that you know about the golf course, it can sometimes hurt you this week because of what you’re used to. But at the end of the day, it is a lot softer and a lot more scorable.”