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June 10, 2020

Podcast No. 77: Justin Thomas, World's No. 1 Ranked Golfer

As the PGA Tour returns, we’re excited to share our discussion with one of the best golfers in the world, Justin Thomas.

By Will Ahmed

Listen, review, subscribe.

Justin and I sit down for a wide-ranging conversation about his upbringing, his career, and how WHOOP is helping him improve his performance both on and off the course.

Justin talks about disappointing results that have helped fuel him for triumphs later on, his friendship with Tiger Woods, why he leans on Tom Brady and Jack Nicklaus for advice, plus how Rory McIlroy recommended WHOOP to him and why he’s used it ever since.

I know you’ll enjoy our conversation, and stay in the green while you’re on the green!

Justin Thomas Podcast Show Notes:

3:09 – Getting Into the Family Business. “My grandpa played on Tour, I don’t know the exact amount of years, but I know he played PGA Tour and Senior PGA Tour. My dad’s been a golf pro for 30 years. … After school, I would just hang out [at the golf club] until my dad was done working. In the fall it would be 4 or 5 o’clock and in the summer it would be 9 or 10 o’clock. I would spend a lot of hours at the pro shop hanging around my dad, hitting balls, hitting putts, whatever it was. It was never pushed on me, but it was kind of destined to be.”

6:57 – A Great Support System. “I’m very, very, very lucky to have amazing parents. I watched kids that were so good that their parents would push them so hard and make them practice and make them go out and hit balls and force them to play. You’re 9 years old, you don’t want to be told to do it. …They want what’s best for their kid, but that young, that’s the quickest way to get disinterested in whatever you’re doing, not just a sport, but anything. I was very lucky. My dad I think knew that I was somewhat talented and my mom took me to all my tournaments because my dad was busy at the shop, but they loved me the same whether I shot 65 or 85. Fortunately for me, I shot more 65’s, otherwise I wouldn’t have made a career out of it.”

10:50 – Losing 2012 NCAA Championship to Texas and Jordan Spieth. “It was awful. It sucked. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. I’m still mad at myself because I know if I would’ve won my match [against Spieth] then we would’ve won, but it’s easy to go back and look at things. I just remember putting so much pressure on myself because Jordan was Jordan. We both had unbelievable years. We were batting it out for both Player and Freshman of the Year. We had a little rivalry, we were very, very close friends and got along great, but we both hated to lose to anybody, let alone each other. … I didn’t handle the situation very well, I got a little too amped up and probably put too much pressure on myself. I had a chance on the back 9, but I just didn’t perform well enough and we lost. It was a bummer.”

12:10 – Remembering it Shot-by-Shot. Will asks Justin what he remembers about his National Championship match against Spieth. Justin, in detail, vividly recalls every key shot of the back 9. “I probably remember that better than some of my wins. It was such a big stage, it was the biggest stage I had probably played in at that point.”

14:42 – Advice From the Best of the Best. Will asks Justin which professional athletes he’s leaned on for advice for handling pressure situations. “I’ve asked Tiger so many questions, and depending on where he is in his playing pretty much determines how he’s going to give me feedback,” Justin jokes. ”But that’s why he is who he is. I’ve picked his brain a lot. I’ve picked Tom Brady’s brain a lot. To me, if I never ask, I’ll never learn. I can always pick and take what I like that will help me.”

16:03 – Learning From Jack. “Jack Nicklaus, my first couple of years, I’d try to get together with him twice a year. … He was someone I had to really pay attention to and pick out certain things. The first time I went and talked to him I was there for three-and-a-half hours. I didn’t even have a question. I was just like, ‘Hey, can I sit and talk to you?’ He said, ‘What’s on your mind?’ I’d say something like, ‘I just want to get a little more comfortable or I’m struggling maybe when I get in contention,’ and then, bang! Next thing you know, it’s three hours later.”

18:15 – Lessons From Disappointment. “You have to fail. It’s not fun to and unfortunately in golf you fail more than maybe anything, especially any sport. Your winning percentage is very, very low and you can still be a Hall-of-Fame golfer. That part is tough. For me, you learn a lot more from those from losses.”

20:42 – Teaming Up with Tiger at Presidents Cup. “That was surreal. I never would have thought that would have happened. … I’m partners with the dude – I’m getting goosebumps saying it – that I’ve looked up to and is probably the reason I’m playing golf and want to win so bad is because of watching him.”

21:49 – Match Play with Tiger. “He’s a tough person to pair with not only because of his golf ball, but he’s one of the best in the world at being himself. Sometimes I think when guys play with him, especially if they haven’t enough, [they get nervous]. I was nervous. I should be nervous because I’m playing in the Presidents Cup, not because Tiger Woods is my partner. I talked to Steve Stricker. … I asked him, because he was partners with [Tiger] in the past, what it was like. He said, ‘You need to be comfortable, don’t try to impress him, you’re really, really good too. Don’t forget that.’”

24:30 – Sophomore Slump. Justin details how he struggled during his sophomore year of college and how his mom helped him through it. “I remember going home from some tournament, I forget what tournament it was, but I thought, ‘I want to play professional golf and, no offense to whoever I was playing against, but I just finished 40th in a college event, I can’t even beat these college kids and I want to go play pro?’ I was in a dark, bad place. I had no reason to be. I felt like I wasn’t ready for the step [of turning professional]. … I remember I didn’t want to play [the final event of the Fall schedule]. … I remember talking to my mom and it was the first time she was ever stern with me about playing in something. She said, ‘You say you want to play professional golf and play all the time, how can you not do this?’ I don’t know, just a couple of days, and I was ready to go play. I ended up winning.”

27:22 – Getting on Tour. Justin explains what PGA Q-School is like and how he nearly missed out on qualifying for his tour card after turning pro. “I shot 66 and 65 the last two days [of qualifying] to make it by 1. It was so weird, because you never get so excited to finish 40th.” The top 45 players qualified.

31:47 – 2017 U.S. Open. Justin shot a record-tying 63 on the Saturday of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, putting him in the final group of a major for the first time in his career. He struggled on Sunday, shooting 3 over for a 9th-place finish. “To be honest, I just didn’t play well. I was very nervous. It was windy, which didn’t help, it made it even more difficult. … I just got behind the 8-ball so fast and I wasn’t patient enough. Later that year, at Quail Hollow at the PGA [Championship], I was very, very patient. I just kept waiting and waiting and waiting for good stuff to happen, and it did. If Erin Hills had not happened, Quail Hollow (Justin’s first major win) wouldn’t have happened.”

35:05 – First Major Victory. Justin details his first major title at the 2017 PGA Championship, when he pulled away from a 5-player tie on the back 9 to win. “I just felt comfortable. I just know that golf course and you’re not going to get 5 people that play the last 6 holes or 5 holes at Quail Hollow 2 under par. It’s just not going to happen. 13 is tough. 16, 17, 18, they’re all so tough. That’s what I was thinking, ‘3 of those guys are going to play those holes over par and they’re done.’ I knew if I could just manage my game better and sprinkle in a couple of birdies, I’m going to get handed this trophy. It just so happened that I made a couple birdies when I needed to and luckily I could just limp my way up 18.”

37:48 – Discovering WHOOP. “I found out about WHOOP through Rory [McIlroy], actually, who’s obviously been on the podcast and has been a user for a while now. I think the absolute world of him. … He’s someone who obviously takes his body very seriously and his off the course stuff [seriously]. So if someone who has been the best player in the world, who has won X majors and all these tournaments, and is a great ambassador for not only the game, but just for the world, is doing something like this, then why couldn’t I? I thought it was something I would wear for a couple of months just to try to pick up on some specific things, but now it’s just a part of my life.”

40:22 – What WHOOP has Taught Him. “I have learned [your body] is just like a computer. Whatever you put in your body, it’s either going to run well or poorly. If I want to feel good the next day, I need to make sure I’m eating really well and drinking a lot of water and not eating before I go to bed. I feel like I’m repeating myself with what a lot of other people have said on the [WHOOP] Podcast, but you hear about stuff like drinking isn’t good for your body or your sleep. But it’s mind-blowing the first time when you wake up after having 2 drinks and you look at your phone like, ‘Damn. Really?’”

41:20 – Individual Insights. “I’ve learned what works for Rory doesn’t work for me, what works for me doesn’t work for him, doesn’t work for you, doesn’t work for everybody. I wanted to figure out what was good for me, and if I’m going into the weekend of The Masters and I’m playing really well and I have a 3-shot lead, I need to know what I need to do this afternoon, tonight, what I need to do before bed to where I feel like I’m going to sleep my best. … If you can control what you can control, at least it gives you a better probability for what you want to achieve.”

42:14 – REM and Slow-Wave Sleep. Will notes Justin is a “world-class” sleeper, as his WHOOP data shows he averages over 3 hours of REM sleep per night and nearly two hours of slow-wave (deep) sleep. “I bet if you were to compare [your sleep] across the whole athlete population, that’s maybe 2 hours higher than other professional athletes,” Will says. “I’ve got to make up for it since I don’t have big muscles and I’m not like a specimen like some other guys,” Justin jokes.

47:09 – Tracking Different Behaviors. “That’s exactly why I started wearing WHOOP. You wouldn’t need to wear a WHOOP if there was one formula. If everybody did the exact same thing, then what’s the point of having anything that tracks data? The reason I have it is because I want to know exactly what I can do to make me perform my best and feel my best.”

48:33 – Traveling for the Presidents Cup. “Australia was jet lag I’ve never experienced in my life. That was atrocious,” Justin says. Will checks Justin’s data and finds he had 3 straight red recovery days after landing in Australia. “It’s just a steady ascent to green on your final day, so at least you were able to bounce back. And then, it looks like maybe there was some devious behavior after [winning the Presidents Cup] because I see some more red recoveries,” Will jokes.

50:13 – Using WHOOP Before Rounds. “It’s always the first thing I do [in the morning], process my sleep. I try not to get too wrapped up in it. … There’s a lot more that goes into it than just you being recovered. Me having a 95% recovery can’t help me hit a 5-iron draw to a back left pin on the 17th hole of a major, that’s you being in the moment.”

51:13 – How WHOOP Tells Him to Call on His Caddie. “I probably get more out of my bad recovery or bad sleep days than I do good, because I can go into the day and go to Jimmy, my caddie, and be like, ‘Jimmy, I need you today. I need to talk things out. I need you to keep me calm. I’m probably going to be irritable today, I’m probably not going to be fun to work for, but these are days where I need you.’ That’s where a great caddie is a great caddie and not just a caddie or a good caddie. … That’s where I’m able to look at [WHOOP] and say ‘I didn’t sleep very well, I don’t feel that great, so I need to minimize my activity before I go play.’”

55:07 – Sleep and a Restless Mind. Justin recalls Will’s interview with Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, when Commander Divine stated that it’s extremely difficult to last 10 seconds without a thought entering your mind. “It’s almost impossible to not think about anything [before sleep]” Justin says. “I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve played Augusta National in my head as I’m going to sleep.”

58:47 – Measuring WHOOP Results on the Course. “I really, really like looking [at my WHOOP data] after tournaments to see what my heart rate was like. I can get specific and look and be like, ‘Okay, I was in 17 fairway right there, why did [my heart rate] go from 110 to 140? What was going on?’ That part is what’s so cool about it to try and figure out why that’s happening.”

1:00:54 – Dealing With Nerves. “I wouldn’t understand why someone would do something if they’re not nervous, because if you’re not nervous then it doesn’t mean anything to you. There’s definitely good nerves and bad nerves. There’s the ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so nervous and I’m scared to fail’ nervous, and there’s like a ‘This is such a big moment, I can’t wait to make this putt and show everybody this moment,’ nervous. … It makes me laugh and it honestly drives me crazy when some guys are so stubborn to say that they’re not nervous teeing off Sunday at Augusta with the lead. What, are you dead inside? That’s not possible. I’m nervous anytime I go play Augusta for fun, let alone the first round of a tournament, let alone on Sunday with a lead.”

1:04:18 – Good for Golf, Bad for Golf. Will peppers Justin with a series of questions and Justin answers whether they’re positive or negative for the sport:

  • Tiger Woods’ comeback: “Good for golf. That was easy.”
  • The USGA: “Somewhere in between. … They mean to do good for golf but they’ve done plenty of things that are bad for golf.”
  • Slow play: Justin says it hurts the sport, but also doesn’t see a good fix unless the number of players gets cut down, a move he’d be hesitant to do. “You put 5,000 cars on a freeway, it’s going to be pretty packed. If you put 156 guys in a field it’s going to be pretty packed. I truly don’t think anything is going to get much better if we keep the field sizes big. … We can’t complain about play being slow if there’s that many people, it’s a traffic jam. We could implement a slow-play policy to where guys have to hit a shot in X amount of time, but are we doing this to save 7 minutes on a round? It’s not like once we start this policy rounds are going to get 45 minutes faster.”
  • Posting the slowest round times at the end of the day: “I love that. You don’t want to have your number up there. We all know who the slow players are … no slow player thinks they’re slow. Bryson [DeChambeau] doesn’t think he’s slow and he’s slower than anybody. I get along with him great, he’s a good dude, but he’s slow!”
  • Leaving the pin in: “I think it’s bad for golf. I don’t like the look, it’s just weird, it doesn’t feel right.”
  • Belly putters: “It’s cheating. Just because you’re uncomfortable to try and make a putt on the last hole doesn’t mean you shove a putter in your stomach and all of a sudden your nerves go away. If you have the yips, no offense, it’s not my problem. I just think any kind of anchoring is bad for golf. It’s not everybody else’s fault that you’re not a good putter.”
  • Matt Wolff’s swing: “I think it’s good for golf. I think it’s very cool. … It’s been a while, it’s probably since Jim Furyk, that somebody has come out and has done really well with a very unique, different swing. It’s almost like he has an opportunity to be this generation’s Jim Furyk. Look, you can play really good golf with a really weird looking swing. There are so many moving parts.”

1:14:15 – Justin’s WHOOP Team. Justin is on a WHOOP team with some of the biggest names on tour, including Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth.

1:19:03 – Not Just a Golf Tool. “Obviously I’m a huge fan of the product. It’s not just for someone that is a golfer or an athlete. … It doesn’t take that much effort in experimenting different things or trying different things. Seeing what golf swing works for you, seeing what you need to do day-to-day and at night and as part of your routine; that will help you feel your best, perform your best, whether it’s in a sport or in a profession or in a job at a desk, whatever it is. I’ve just enjoyed it.”

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance. WHOOP today works with everyone from professional athletes to fitness enthusiasts to executives. Ahmed has raised nearly $100 million from top investors and has an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, and designers. He wrote “The Feedback Tool: Measuring Fitness, Intensity, and Recovery,” which sparked the underlying physiology and engineering for his work today. Ahmed was named a 2011 Harvard College Scholar for finishing in the top 10% of his class and a CSA Scholar Athlete; he captained the Harvard Men’s Varsity Squash Team. He was also recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal 40 Under 40.

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