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Think Tiger Woods’ PGA was a struggle? Justin Thomas says that misses the point

Tiger Woods withdrew after his third round at the PGA Championship.

A review of Justin Thomas’ winner’s press conference on Sunday at the PGA Championship tells us plenty about the newest two-time major champ. About his mindset going into Sunday’s final round. About a key conversation he had with caddie Bones Mackay. About how much this win meant after a half-decade spent chasing his second major. And while I covered Thomas’ week here, I was left thinking about Thomas’ reaction to the final question of the session, which was about his good friend Tiger Woods.

“As a close friend to Tiger, how tough was it to see him struggle this week?” a reporter asked.

The implication there was that Woods had struggled. And he had. He struggled to walk the golf course several days in a row. He struggled to a third-round 79. He struggled in Saturday’s conditions to the point where he withdrew and headed home to protect himself rather than risk anything playing Sunday. But that doesn’t make the sum total of his weekend a struggle. At least, not in Thomas’ mind.

“I mean, I wouldn’t say how tough it was to see him struggle,” he said, bristling at the premise of the question. “I mean, he made the cut in his second major in a row, what, a year and a half after being in a gruesome car accident, broken leg? I don’t think you guys understand how unbelievable that is.”

Sometimes Thomas downplays his connection to Woods, which is understandable. As a top professional athlete there are only so many questions you want to answer about another top professional athlete. And as a friend there are only so many questions you want to answer about the life of your extremely private friend. But if there was ever a moment for Thomas to take the mic and speak freely, this was it. He was a major champion fresh off a miraculous seven-stroke comeback playoff victory. And he wanted to make something clear about his buddy.

“He’s a freak of nature,” Thomas continued. “It’s mind-blowing the things that he can do with his mind. I didn’t play during his prime, but from the times I’ve been out here and him winning the Masters in ’19 and winning the Tour Championship [in 2018], him making the cut these last two tournaments, given the condition he was in last year, it’s absurd. Like, beyond absurd.”

In other words, Thomas wants to insert a little reality into the Tiger discourse. It’s easy for viewers to see Woods enter a tournament and expect that the version we’ll see is the same we always have. But his ability to tee it up this season is a testament to the power of his mind and his will. That’s how he has continued to fight through rehab from the crash, push through enduring injuries he’d already suffered, slow the relentless decay of time. We hear Woods say that he can contend and we believe him, because that’s the only way we know how to make sense of his place in a golf tournament. We’ve gotten used to evaluating Woods through the same harsh lens that he evaluates himself. Sure, he hasn’t yet proven he can play more than 36 consecutive holes at a high level. But he’s also made the cut at both the Masters and the PGA. That’s not nothing.

Thomas’ point is well taken: “Struggle” implies that Woods’ week was a failure. His inspiring rally to make the cut on Friday was anything but. Seen another way, though, “struggle” is a badge of honor, too. If Woods is struggling that means he’s fighting back. He’s battling. And with any luck, there will be a time when him merely making the cut isn’t cause for celebration — but we’re not there just yet. There was some magic in his approach shot at No. 16, a soaring 4-iron that settled just four feet from the cup, all but assuring he’d play the weekend.

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And he even though Woods didn’t feel up to competing on Sunday, he found more than enough energy to razz Thomas after his third-round 74.

“Yeah, I talked to him a little [Saturday] night and asked how he was feeling,” Thomas said. “He just said he was feeling terrible because my name kept dropping on the leaderboard.

So I was like, “Thanks, good to talk to you, too. I’ll talk to you later.”

As for the congratulations he expected to receive post-win?

“I don’t know, I’m sure he probably will give me a hard time for shanking it [on No. 6 on Sunday],” Thomas added. “I should have made the putt on 18 [in regulation]. Shouldn’t have been in a playoff. I don’t know, he’ll always find something to give me grief about.”

In other words, behind closed doors it’s all fair game. Thomas said he’ll let the trophy speak for itself; his major total of two is just 13 shy of Woods’. “I think now I only have like 150 other things to do that he’s done to where he can stop giving me grief,” he added.

But to the public, Thomas will defend his guy whenever and wherever he can. At least, until Woods is there on Sunday afternoons to do so himself.

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