PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Five years ago, when Justin Thomas came to the 2018 P.G.A. Championship as the defending champion, he was still cruising along as one of the top three players in the game and had spent a stint as the top-ranked men’s golfer in the world.
At that moment, elite golf came easily to him.
Thomas was 25 and the winner of one major championship. This week, Thomas once again returns to the P.G.A. Championship as the defending champion. But things are different now.
Since his victory last year at the P.G.A. Championship in Tulsa, Okla., Thomas has endured the bumpy, maddening irregularity typical of any golf career (amateur or professional). He comes to the Oak Hill Country Club outside Rochester, N.Y., without finishing first in any of the 20 events he has entered since claiming his second career major victory in 2022.
In April, he missed the cut at the Masters Tournament, which was a first for him. A month earlier, he stumbled to a tie for 60th at the Players Championship, an event he won two years ago.
In 10 tournaments this year, he has just two top-10 finishes and five results outside the top 20. None of this is particularly unusual in the narrative of any lengthy professional golf career but that has not made it any easier for Thomas, whose father and grandfather were PGA teaching professionals and whose emotions are often readily apparent on the golf course.
Always candid, Thomas conceded on Monday that his game was tattered enough at times in the last year that he teed up for some tournaments knowing, in the back of his mind, that he could not win. How must that feel for someone who was once rated the best golfer on the planet?
“It’s terrible,” Thomas answered. “How I described it for a couple months is that 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.”
But Thomas does feel as if he might be battling his way out of the golfing darkness in recent weeks. He shot three rounds under par at this month’s Wells Fargo Championship on the PGA Tour to finish in a tie for 14th. He has learned a newfangled system of putting, which he said was complex but made reading the greens very simple (sounds like golf, right?). Nonetheless, he sees progress with his putting.
Perhaps most important, he has allowed other golfers to help him, because the sport can be too hard to manage by yourself.
Thomas, for example, played his 18-hole practice round on Monday with Max Homa, who is now the sixth-ranked player worldwide but who once appeared to have bungled his chance of making a living as a golfer — at about the same time Thomas was winning his first major title.
In 2017, Homa lost his PGA Tour playing privileges after he missed the cut in 15 of 17 tournaments. In golf parlance, it is called losing your tour card, which is a gracious way of saying you were expelled from the top level of golf for shoddy play.
The next year, Homa magically requalified for the tour, in part by improbably making birdies on each of his final four holes of a minor league tour golf event. Since then, Homa has won more than $21 million on the PGA Tour with two of his six tour victories coming in the last eight months.
On Monday, as Thomas was attempting to explain how he was trying to fight his way back to the highest echelon of men’s golf — and how vital it was to remain optimistic instead of pouting — he used Homa as an example.
“Nobody is in a better place than Max Homa out here,” Thomas said. “There’s no other top player in the world who’s gone through what he’s gone through in terms of having a tour card, losing your tour card, having to earn it back and then becoming one of the top players in the world.
“I’ve talked to him about it before because he’s like, nobody out here really knows how bad it can be.”
Thomas snickered. He was not going to allow himself to feel too badly about his recent slump. He is still the 13th-ranked golfer in the world. Or as he added: “It’s all relative. And it’s all about making the most of whatever situation you’re in.
“That’s how you get out of it, by just playing your way out of it. You hit shots when you want to and make those putts when you need to, and then your confidence builds back up. The next thing you know, you don’t even remember what you were thinking in those times when you felt down.”
But Thomas smiled. He is now a veteran at 30, not just getting started in the big time at 25. He knows he has chosen a mercurial vocation.
“Like anything else in golf,” Thomas said, “it’s easier said than done.”