The day before Justin Thomas’ national television broadcasting debut, it seemed he’d run out of time. With the crew and the players gathering for a three-hole “dry run” of the broadcast for the Match II, JT the on-course reporter hadn’t hit his stride.
Of course, no one expected Thomas to hammer out the nuance of one of sports television’s toughest gigs in a few weeks’ time. After all, he was only moonlighting as a broadcaster and was under no delusion about quitting his day job (word has it being the world’s 4th-ranked golfer pays better).
Thomas’ discomfort grew as he worked through the dress rehearsal with fellow on-course reporter and CBS stalwart Amanda Balionis. Three weeks of preparation had helped, but they weren’t enough to fully prepare him for the frenetic tenor of live television. Now, all that stood between JT and a live audience of millions were three measly holes.
Soon, Woods, Mickelson, Manning and Brady reached the 3rd green at Medalist Golf Club and putted out. The professional portion of the dress rehearsal was over. Thomas was expected to join the foursome as they drove back to the clubhouse. Instead, he got on the line with producer Jeff Neubarth.
“We both felt he needed a little bit more time,” Neubarth said. “The easy way would’ve been like ‘alright man, I’m not going to do any more work, I’ll catch you guys tomorrow.’ But no.”
For the next hour, Thomas traversed six additional holes with his headset on, content to work for as long as it took to feel comfortable going live the following day.
“I loved JT and his work,” said broadcaster Brian Anderson, who anchored Turner’s coverage from the booth. “He really wanted to do this well and he asked a lot of questions and spent a lot of time with us. This guy is like No. 4 in the world and a major championship winner and you’d have thought he was just a college kid learning a new trade.”
By every imaginable metric, the broadcast for Sunday’s Match II was a smashing success. According to Turner Sports, the Match II averaged 5.8 million viewers throughout its five-hour broadcast window, the largest audience ever for a cable golf telecast. In his first foray into broadcasting, Thomas gave the appearance of a seasoned veteran because, in a sense, he was.
“Justin worked really hard to get good,” Neubarth said. “Justin and I had been talking for a couple weeks after it was announced that he was going to be part of the match. I think one of the things that makes [him] great at everything he does is the hard work he put in.”
Thomas worked closely with Balionis all afternoon in an amusing role reversal, the PGA Tour player now querying the on-course reporter for her expertise.
“Amanda made sure all of his bases were covered,” Neubarth said. “He knew where to drive, where to go, where not to go, where to position yourself. Amanda was selfless in offering up any advice she had.”
Before long, Thomas settled in. He guided viewers through Phil Mickelson’s short game lesson, he made fun of Charles Barkley, he made Tiger Woods look like a cyborg.
But more than anything he did on camera, Thomas impressed those around him with his professionalism, work ethic and commitment. A 27-year-old superstar who, for a day, was more interested in being a semi-professional broadcaster.
“I give him so much credit for just being fully engaged with us,” Anderson said. “When he could’ve been fully engaged with Tiger and Phil, he was engaged with us on the TV side like ‘I want to do this well.'”