After winning the 2022 PGA Championship at Southern Hills in the unlikeliest of fashions, Justin Thomas quoted Tom Brady. "Your favorite Super Bowl is your next one, and that's what my favorite major is. And at this moment, it's definitely this guy right here," Thomas said at the time, looking at his new mantelpiece with a twinkle in his eye.
Thomas had just overcome a final-round deficit that saw him seven strokes behind before putting the finishing touches on a flawless three-hole playoff to earn his second Wanamaker Trophy. He was still soaking in what had just transpired, wishing this feeling of euphoria could last forever.
Except, that isn't how the world works and certainly not how the game of golf churns. Life moves on, the news cycle turns over, you blink and all of a sudden you're no longer the most recent major champion. The pursuit is endless, and the only certainty is the infinite nature of it all.
Thomas' quest to return to such a state over the last 365 days has been anything but predictable. Turbulence is always expected on such a prolonged journey, but not even the recently turned 30-year-old could have forecasted the choppy waters through which he has had to traverse.
"It's very frustrating, especially it's a lot easier -- like anything in golf, it's easier said than done in terms of thinking big picture, thinking process, thinking I'm going to be better off for this and whatnot," Thomas said of his recent slump Monday at Oak Hill Country Club. "At the end of the day, after a couple of months or six months, whatever it is, where you're not performing as well as you feel like you should and not having the finishes you feel like you should or not winning tournaments like you feel like you should, it's pretty easy to get pissed off and understand what's going wrong.
"Like anything, I've preached this to myself, I'm sure I've said it to y'all or I've said it to younger guys that ask, how you learn is failure and negatives, and I feel like I've had a great opportunity for a lot of learning the past, whatever, six months, couple months, this year."
Of course, these shortcomings are all relative. Thomas is only 20 starts removed from his major championship triumph in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He's finished inside the top five in 20% of those outings and inside the top 25 in more than half. He believes a corner was finally turned with his performance at the Wells Fargo Championship.
However, if the season was to end today, it would be the third worst of Thomas' career from a strokes-gained perspective, second worst in terms of approach play — his bread and butter — and the first since his rookie season without adding a new piece of hardware to his collection.
Thomas hasn't been in the mix late into a final round of a golf tournament since the 2022 Canadian Open when he fell to Rory McIlroy. That was 11 months ago, and while the results thereafter may hold some weight on paper, they fall short of what matters most: Thomas' own expectations.
"In literal terms, it's did you win the tournament or not? It's unfortunate how it happens that way. In reality, it's not how you should or how all of us base success and failure, but at the end of the day, we're all trying to win the golf tournament," said Thomas. "And whether it's we back-doored a third place or we were tied with one hole left and made a bogey and finished third, we might be pleased somewhere in here with a third, but there's somewhere down there that's upset we didn't win."
For someone who processes golf shots in a manner that would make a nuclear physicist smirk, Thomas' definition of success is extremely simplistic: win.
It is a mindset that has served him well throughout his career. He's 15 times a winner on the PGA Tour, a former world No. 1, twice a major champion, a force on the United States Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams and a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame whenever he should decide to hang them up long down the road. For all we know, he could just now be entering his prime.
Unfortunately for Thomas, this macro-level thinking he alluded to hasn't translated to the golf course over the last year, and therein lies the problem.
Thomas has all the shots. He has all the skill in the world. If the PGA Tour was to hold a skills competition tomorrow, Thomas would be the betting favorite. Banana slices, rope hooks, low bullets, high feathery fairway metals with the ball landing like a butterfly with sore feet, give me the wiry American all day and twice on Sunday.
This is indisputable, but with such a boundless arsenal at his disposal, Thomas may have lost his way ever so slightly. The mic'd up moments of circumventing a 100-yard wedge shot with a breath of wind make for social media gold and add to his extensive highlight reel, but not often enough have they put him in a position to do what matters most.
"It sucks. It's terrible," Thomas said of showing up to tournaments wondering if he could win. "I mean, how I described it for a couple months is I've never felt so far and so close at the same time. That's a very hard thing to explain, and it's also a very hard way to try to compete and win a golf tournament.
"That's how you get out of it, just playing your way out of it and hitting the shots when you want to and making those putts when you need to, and then your confidence builds back up, and next thing you know, you don't even remember what you were thinking in those times."
Oak Hill will chew up, spit back and make a mockery of any ill-advised decision this week at the 2023 PGA Championship. It will force players to remain disciplined only to then minutes later coerce them into an uncomfortable choice at an uncomfortable time with these decisions ultimately determining the winner. This knowledge is not lost on Thomas, and is partly why he is the defending champion.
In 2017 and 2022, he picked his windows to deploy his weaponry with exquisite timing whether it was a 7-iron on 17 at Quail Hollow or a 3-wood on the 17th at Southern Hills. Like the debates with his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, these shots made for great television, but it was the patience and simple tactics which Thomas had previously employed that got him to that point in the first place, especially the most recent Sunday when he could have easily forced the issue early.
So while the last year hasn't gone the way he has envisioned, a return to the PGA Championship and the style of play it pressurizes competitors into may be exactly what Thomas needs to snag "the next one". After all, he has won this thing twice before, and sometimes it can be as simple as that.