HARTFORD, Conn. – Justin Thomas had had a dream-like pro career for six years, then the world seemed to be collapsing around him in a vortex of turmoil in early 2021.
After notching 13 PGA Tour victories, including a major championship, reaching No. 1 in the world and capturing a FedExCup title, life seemed close to perfect for the personable Thomas. But a greenside boom microphone caught the former University of Alabama standout making a self-depreciating homophobic slur after missing a 5-foot putt in the third round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January. He immediately apologized several times and vowed “to become a better person” in learning from his mistake, but that wasn’t enough to stop long-time sponsor Ralph Lauren from terminating their contract and another from giving him a reprimand.
“I’m a grown man, there’s absolutely no reason for me to say anything like that. It’s terrible and extremely embarrassing,” Thomas, 27, said at the time. “It’s not whom I am, it’s not the kind of person that I am or anything that I do. Unfortunately, I did it, and I have to own up to it and I’m very apologetic.”
So it was against that backdrop, plus his grandfather dying and close friend and mentor Tiger Woods being seriously injured in a car accident in February, that Thomas entered The Players Championship last week at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla., in a frayed state of mind. And he admitted early in the tournament that the mic incident had affected his game, leading to two missed cuts in his four previous starts.
“I think (the controversy) put a lot of things in perspective,” Thomas said, “and unfortunately for my golf, it has taken a toll on that a little bit, and I haven’t been playing as well as I’d like. It’s been a crappy two months. I’ve had stuff happen in my life I never thought I’d have happen. Losing grandpa was terrible, and having to play a round of golf dealing with that, and then on top of that not playing well, it just was a lot, and it took a lot on me mentally.
“I had to figure it out and had to get over it, and if I wanted to come to these tournaments and have a chance to win, then I needed to suck it up and get over it. If I wanted to throw a pity party for myself or feel sorry for myself, there’s no reason to show up, and I can stay home until I feel like I’m ready. I felt like I was in a good enough head space where I could play.”
And play Thomas did, rallying to make the cut and then shooting a record-tying, 12-under-par 132 over the weekend for a 72-hole total of 14-under 274 and a one-stroke victory over Englishman Lee Westwood to move from third to second in the Official World Golf Ranking behind reigning Travelers Championship titlist Dustin Johnson.
“This is a huge championship, very special,” said Thomas, who fought back tears in an interview with NBC/Golf Channel’s Steve Sands. “It’s a tournament I’ve wanted to win, a tournament this I truly did feel like I was going to win at some point, and hopefully multiple times. I love the golf course, which is a great test of golf and why it’s a Players Championship.
“I tried to stay patient like the last three holes on Friday (birdies at the 16th and 18th holes to make the cut) that changed the momentum in the tournament. This week was huge to win a big championship like this in front of fans again, which is incredible. It tested me mentally, physically, emotionally, and I’m very proud of myself for getting it done.”
Thomas could feel plenty of pride after shooting 64-68 in the final two rounds to notch the second biggest title of his career to the 2017 PGA Championship after fighting his game, his emotions and getting hammered on social media for months. He capped the win with a pair of lag putts from 50 feet – one for birdie at the par-5 16th to take the lead and another on the island-green 17th for par. He still had one more shot before he was in the clear, and his hooking 3-wood drive on the final hole skirted the left side of the fairway and looked destined to wind up in a lake but bounced straight off a crown in the first cut and into the fairway.
After his ball rolled 64 yards and stayed dry by about 10 feet, Thomas gave a sigh of relief and draped his arms on the right shoulder of veteran caddie, Jimmy Johnson, whom he has had nearly all of his professional life.
“It was too close for comfort, for sure,” a smiling Thomas said.
Thomas then hit his 99-yard sand wedge approach to the front fringe, the only green that he missed in regulation all day, and two-putted for par as Westwood was three-putting the 17th hole from 55 feet, lipping out an 8-footer for par to fall two back after making 16 consecutive putts of 10 feet or closer for the day. Westwood’s closing birdie got him solo second but not the victory that he so cherished.
“Justin really did earn it,” said NBC analyst Paul Azinger, a two-time winner of the Canon Greater Hartford Open. “He scratched and clawed just to make the cut, and then he just blistered this golf course on the weekend.”
Thomas, a likely entry for the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell on June 24-27, earned $2.7 million from a $15 million purse, both PGA Tour records, plus 600 FedExCup points to vault from 10th to second behind Bryson DeChambeau, who continued his torrid stretch by shooting 276 for a tie for second with Brian Harman, one back of Westwood, whose 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole gave him solo second. DeChambeau, who has committed to the Travelers Championship, won the Arnold Palmer Invitational the previous week, beating Westwood by a stroke, and now has five Top-10 finishes in eight starts in 2020-21.
But DeChambeau, who notched his first major win in September in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., could never overcome topping his drive on the fourth hole 143 yards into a hazard on the way to a double-bogey 6. Making matters worse, he cracked his 4-iron and couldn’t use it the rest of the way.
“Golf,” the PGA Tour’s longest driver said of the fourth-hole mishap that was followed by three birdies and an eagle 3 at the 16th hole. “I was hitting it pretty good for the most part. I don’t know what happened. That’s the game. … I’m OK with it. Still smiles after. I fought really hard. It just seemed like something wasn’t going my way today for some reason. I could feel it. It was weird. Just numerous putts that I hit, it was like, ‘OK, that’s a really good putt, and it didn’t go in.”
Especially at the 18th hole, where a 14-foot birdie putt horse-shoed the cup and stayed out, causing him to bend over for several seconds and costing him a share of second when Westwood holed his birdie try.
Perhaps Justin Thomas has crossed the threshold to be Hall of Fame worthy?