HOYLAKE, England -- Justin Thomas is trying to solve an impossible riddle. He knows it, but he still asks the question, still wonders aloud if there's an answer to why he can go from hitting a shot befitting of the best player in the world, to hitting the next one in a way that's unbecoming of any person who calls himself a professional golfer.
Thomas knows golf isn't a game that's mastered by a method or solved with an equation. One moment it is there, the next it is gone. One shot and you're the best. Two shots and you're suddenly the worst. How? Searching for an explanation might provide an answer, but it will only last until a different question emerges.
"It doesn't make sense," Thomas said Friday. "There's nobody that shot 82 that hit some of the quality shots that I did yesterday."
The top of the golf world has suited Thomas well in recent years. He's hailed as one of the game's best ball-strikers and has won two majors. He has struggled before, but has never dealt with anything like this: a second-round 81 at the U.S. Open and a missed cut; a first-round 82 at The Open and a missed cut. Both were his worst rounds at majors in his career.
Thomas admits he's making mistakes reminiscent of himself as a junior golfer, over 20 years ago. How he'll fix them is the all-important question. It's one no one seems to have the answer to -- not Thomas's dad and longtime coach, Mike, who watches over every practice swing; not his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, who walks with him every step; not even Thomas himself.
"I don't know if it's a focus thing or I'm just putting too much pressure on myself or what it is," Thomas said. "I'm trying to not focus too much on days like yesterday. I'm trying not to dwell on it ... but it just sucks when it's the first round of a major, and you have no chance anymore."
After Thursday's debacle, Friday's round became an experiment. With neither the cut line nor the trophy in his sights, Thomas was trying to find something, anything that would carry over and make the trip to Liverpool worth it. So it did not matter that this was the Open Championship, where links golf demands accuracy and restraint. Thomas had made a decision: He was going to hit his driver all day.
Over the course of his second round, the two-time major winner didn't hold back or lay up. As he flared balls off the tee left and right, shouting out "fore" several times, it was hard to call the strategy smart or even take it as a sign of a certain kind of freedom. It felt more like a combination of having nothing left to lose and trying to figure out where to go from here after back-to-back missed cuts at majors. The result was an impressive even-par round that was 11 shots better than his first, and allowed Thomas to preach positivity after.
"I used today as a good opportunity to get ready for next week, and I felt like I did that," Thomas said. "I'm hitting a lot of good shots. I'm just making so many bonehead mistakes and crazy things are happening. I'll be fine."
Throughout his round Friday, Thomas embodied golf's harshest paradox with plenty of good shots followed by bad ones and vice versa. After wayward drives, he dropped his head, winced and mimicked his swing as if to try to fix himself in the process. Still he fought, grinded even, for pars and bogeys and found a handful of birdies along the way too.
"It's hard over here, to me, to play too much golf swing because it gets so windy and you have to hit so many shots, which I like," Thomas said. "It kind of gets me away from golf swing thoughts."
Thomas' artistry is a key tenet of his game. He doesn't excel by driving it farther than anyone or by being a better putter. The magic of his game is in the shot-making, the bump-and-runs, the carved 7-irons and the tight wedges. Watching him for 18 holes on Friday after his last two major rounds, you could almost see that those shots are still stored inside the hard drive of his mind. The struggle isn't that they've vanished. It's a far crueler reality: right now, he can barely conjure them, if at all.
But even when elite golf feels like a distant, unattainable reality, that magic still spills out like it did at various moments Friday. On 12, after his approach came up just short, the low, spinning chip he fired toward the hole found its way to the bottom of the cup. A rare smile appeared.
"I'm trying to look at the big picture," Thomas said.
Despite his overall performance at Hoylake, Thomas was more resigned than despondent, never angry, just disappointed. As soon as he exited each hole, he gave nearby fans high-fives and fist pumps, and nodded to the cheers that still followed despite what the leaderboard showed. By the time he got to nearly every tee box, he had to pull out a new ball from his bag and mark it -- he had given away the one he'd used to a kid. When asked in his post-round interview if he would come to England to watch Leeds United -- the soccer team he and Jordan Spieth have invested in -- Thomas grinned.
"I'd like to," he said. "But I gotta figure out this sport first."
To get technical for a second, it's hard to pinpoint what Thomas' issue really is. He's hitting the ball shorter off the tee and has been far less accurate, but his approach game has still been well above average. His putter has been a problem all year, and he tried swapping it out for a blade-style putter at one point in the season before going back to his original mallet. On the PGA Tour this year, Thomas ranks 152nd in strokes gained: putting. Perhaps the struggles on the green have seeped back into nearly every part of his game. So much so that he has missed four cuts in his past six events and dropped to 20th in the world rankings.
It's why the questions about the Ryder Cup are getting louder. Thomas will likely not qualify on points unless he goes on a tear that doesn't feel likely, and even though he's roommates with USA captain Zach Johnson this week and until recently had been considered a shoo-in, Thomas admitted he's worried about his spot.
"I want to make the Ryder Cup team more than anything," said Thomas, who has had ample success in the event. "I'm probably honestly trying too hard to do it."
As Johnson put it, "Bottom line is this game is really hard. There's going to be peaks. There's going to be some valleys. He's too darned good. I might be slightly concerned, like I said, as a friend, but I'm not worried about him because I know what he does and I know what he's capable of."
It's not just the Ryder Cup. The questions about his dad as coach are getting louder, too.
"It's been tough," Thomas said of the relationship in the midst of the struggles. "He feels bad as a coach. He hates it for me as a father. Neither one of us want anything to be bad when it comes to my golf, but we're working hard. We're trying as hard as we can."
What was evident Friday was that Thomas cares. A lot. Twenty shots out of the lead at one point, he was still begging balls in the air to miss bunkers, to get left, down, right or up. He was still hanging on every shot as if he was in contention.
As he walked toward the ninth hole, one fan quipped, "JT looks f---ing miserable."
It only took walking with him throughout the day to realize he wasn't. Struggling? Yes. Frustrated? Definitely. But miserable? No. He was still playing, tape on his wrist from "hitting it out of the fescue and bunkers so many times," still hoping to hit the best possible shot on every try. He was, somehow, someway, getting better.
"We all go through bad patches," Rory McIlroy said when asked about Thomas. "That's golf. JT will be just OK. He's one of the most talented guys out there. He shot 69 at TPC [Sawgrass] a couple of years ago in like 40 mile-an-hour winds, and I always remind him of it."
On 18, Thomas once again found himself in the bunker where he had made the quadruple bogey Thursday. This time, though, he got out of it and two-putted for bogey, saluting the crowd before giving away a few more balls and his glove and then walking into a tunnel.
Several times on Friday, Thomas fixed his eyes on a leaderboard. His name was nowhere to be found, but it appeared he wanted to know who was playing well. The past two majors have been as low as he's ever been, and while there's certainly always more room below, Thomas has no choice but to believe Friday was a step forward, that those leaderboards will soon include his name once again.
"Everybody has their waves, their kind of momentum and rides and rock bottoms," Thomas said. "I just keep telling myself this is it, I'm coming out of it."