Justin Thomas is turning 30. It has him feeling a certain way
JUSTIN THOMAS WANTS A LOT OF THINGS. Our conversation makes that ultra clear. He has used that word — want — 27 times in the past 26 minutes. He wants more majors and more wins and more putts to drop. The usual stuff. But he also wants some comfort food.
“I mean, it sucks,” he says in mid-March. “I want a pizza so f—ing bad, you have no idea.”
Somehow, these wants are related.
Thomas can’t eat pizza because he recently committed to living gluten-free for a year and dairy-free for six months. No lavish pastas, no gooey burritos, no cereal for breakfast and definitely no pizza. Instead, it’s been fruits, veggies, meat, fish and a daily concoction dreamed up by wellness guru Dr. Ara Suppiah. All of it is meant to heal the leaky gut that, at times, sapped JT’s energy in 2022, the year in which he won his second major.
Scanning the ingredients on the back of every wrapper is a drag, but Thomas is two months into this dietary voyage. “I don’t care how extreme or weird it is,” he says. “I would love to not have to do it, but I have to give it a try to know.”
If it helps the gut, it helps the body. If it helps the body, it’ll help the golf. And everything is about helping his golf.
As for that golf? The past hour alone has been a whirl. Thomas finished the Valspar Championship in Tarpon Springs, Fla., with a final-round 70 and a three-under total for the week. His tournament ended with a faintly tugged 7-iron, a three-putt from 46 feet and a Titleist hat absolutely ripped off his head in frustration. Forty minutes later, after a parking-lot debrief with his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, JT calls me up on his way to a Tampa airport, where he’ll catch a flight home.
My first question proves a little heavier than intended: Where are you at with your golf game?
“Ahhh, I mean, it’s …” Thomas starts, then stalls. “I’m somewhere… ahh, I’m. I don’t know. I’m in a weird spot. I’m playing, I feel like, way better than I’m scoring, which is pretty frustrating. I mean, to close out this week the way I did, I feel like that’s the absolute worst I could have finished. You know, in my eyes, that’s not good.”
Don’t weep for him. By day’s end, Thomas’ three under will be good enough for a T10 finish, which means he gets to splurge on one purchase, a treat-yo-self tradition he’s maintained for every top 10 since he was a rookie. Still, he loses by seven but thinks he could have won by seven, an all-too-familiar feeling lately, which makes the treat a mere small consolation. A week later, JT slides out of the World Top 10 for the first time in five and a half years.
Thomas has been at the top of the game for so long that tough realities have cemented in his mind, and he can’t help but share them. “Winning is, unfortunately — but not unfortunately — the only thing that really matters, you know what I mean? I’m not out here trying to grind out a tie for ninth or 13th. You’re going to have weeks where that is a good week. But I want to have four-, five-, six-, seven-win seasons.”
You have no choice but to nod along when he lays out his lofty goals, aware that ambition often warps expectations. After all, only six golfers in the last 40 years have amassed a five-win season on the PGA Tour, and Thomas is one of them. That 2017 campaign hangs in the back of his head. He’s a more complete player now than he was then, but the wins aren’t arriving like they did in his mid-20s, which brings us to question No. 6 (or 7, or 8): Have you thought much about turning 30? (April 29th was just six weeks away.)
“The only thing that upsets me about turning 30 is that I haven’t accomplished nearly as much as I would have liked or wanted,” Thomas says. “When it comes to accomplishments at that age, I mean, you only get one chance. It’s not like I’ll have another chance in a couple years to get a certain amount of wins before I turn 30. Obviously, a lot of people would take my career, but I don’t know. I’m not that pleased with it.
“I mean, obviously, I’m happy with it. Having two majors is great, but I want five. Fifteen [career] wins is great, but I want 30. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but that’s the reality.”
There’s a cautiousness in his voice when Thomas talks like this. He’s mindful of just how offensive it all might sound to a journeyman pro who slogs through a lengthy career searching for just one shining moment. But it really bothers Thomas when he feels he’s not being authentic. So his answers stay true to his (leaky) gut. Tortured artists seem to know the difference between great and legendary.
A DAY LATER WE’RE ACROSS THE STATE in Jupiter, Fla., and Thomas is surrounded by the fruits of those 15 wins. A black-on-black Lamborghini — the gift he bought himself after triumphing at the 2021 Players Championship — is parked in the driveway of the stunning, $14 million waterfront home that he and Jill, his new bride, are in the process of moving into. Sunsets in Jupiter are quite nice, he tells me, pointing in the direction of the Intracoastal. But he hasn’t seen many lately. He’s been riding the Florida Swing for three weeks as the cardboard boxes pile up inside.
Some decorative art is in place, but most of it leans against the wall, waiting for hooks. One of the few pieces to find a home so far is opened on the living room coffee table. It’s a massive tome titled Equation of Time. Stretching 40 inches wide and weighing over 100 pounds, the book of epic landscape and nature imagery is clearly one of Thomas’ favorite things. “I got that for winning the Sony [Open],” he says proudly. “They’re all Peter Lik photographs. That’s pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever received from a win.” Had the nearby trophy room been finished, this $3,000 keepsake would have plenty of competition.
JT’s mood has lifted today. The Valspar is just 20 hours in the rearview but he’s already referring to it as “last week.” More significantly, he’s in control, and that’s where he thrives. “I have zero sympathy for people who bitch about things they can do something about,” he says. He’s skipping the match-play event in Austin this week because he doesn’t love the course and doesn’t like the tournament’s pool-play format. If he had his choice, it would be single-elimination.
Instead, he’s standing in the center of his home as a half-dozen people, fast at work, scurry around him. Today’s project is 13 hours of tailoring, content creation and voguing in front of a camera for emergent athleisure company Greyson Clothiers. JT’s labradoodle Franklin bounces around in his shadow, enjoying the attention. Hangers are strewn across the floor. Much of Greyson’s stylish gear Justin loves; some pieces spark questions. These shirts breathe really well. The tapered cuff on these joggers, can we shrink it?
These are concerns not of a sponsored golfer but of an owner. Thomas bought an equity stake in Greyson in 2022, carving out a deal where they don’t pay him; he has paid them for a piece of their future success. In 2020 Thomas crafted a similar partnership with fitness tracking company Whoop and founded a skincare brand called WearSPF. Spending his own money is a control play, too. He sees it as a pipeline to get more out of what he does on the course, dictate better exactly how he wants to look and even hone in on the amount of time he owes sponsors. “I could never do what Rick does,” Thomas says, citing his good friend Rickie Fowler, who has admitted to having as many as 30 marketing days with sponsors per year.
Instead, the investment strategy is simple: “If I win, they win. If they win, I win,” Thomas says. Consider it one of the insights he’s siphoned from an impressive list of mentor-friends. Among them is Jimmy Dunne, the president of Seminole Golf Club, who is most often introduced as golf’s greatest power broker. “The Dunne Man,” as he’s affectionately known, connects people in the game. He and Thomas have talked plenty of business, and the pursuit of the right partner, Dunne says, is more critical than trying to “be real smart and negotiate the last penny.”
When Dunne thinks about his relationship with Thomas, his mind goes straight to Augusta National, circa March 2016. Thomas was a baby-faced 22-year-old prepping for his first Masters. He’d just dropped a towering 8-iron onto the back-right shelf of the par-3 6th. The third player in their group was blown away. And fretful.
“This guy was saying, ‘You know, isn’t it really expensive to be out on Tour?’” Dunne recalls, struggling to keep his laughter in check. “‘You know, you got all that travel and you got to get your equipment and everything else?’ Whenever Justin would win another tournament, we’d text each other and I’d say, ‘Hey! Good! You’ve got your bus fare covered to get home!’”
That third player was Tom Brady, tenderly earning a place in JT’s Rolodex.
Sometimes, when a topic gets a bit too elevated, Thomas playfully reminds the golf media that he dropped out of college (University of Alabama) after two years. But when there’s an edge to be gained, Dunne says, “Justin is all questions and all ears.” Three Super Bowl wins and seven years later, Brady now gives Thomas fitness tips for longevity. Michael Phelps chats with him about ice baths. He steals business insights during rounds with Michael Jordan and texts with Nick Saban in the precious minutes after ’Bama football games. Pursuing greatness, it would seem, is about surrounding yourself with it.
And then there’s his relationship with Tiger Woods.
“It’s not easy to be friends with Tiger Woods,” says longtime JT pal Smylie Kaufman. And he’s right. “He has been able to become, almost, Tiger’s younger brother. To form a relationship like that, Tiger has to see either greatness or just a little bit of himself [in you].”
Fearless reporter Fred Couples thinks it might be simpler than that. “About two months ago,” Couples remembers, “I said to Tiger, ‘Do many people come up and ask you questions?’ He said, ‘Surprisingly, no.’ [Even] I don’t ask Tiger a whole lot of questions. But I said, ‘Man, this JT thing…’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, we just enjoy each other’s company.’ ”
Thomas’ obsession with winning — only winning — suddenly makes a little more sense. After a missed cut at the Scottish Open in July, Thomas shipped up to St. Andrews a couple days early, only to be greeted by a text from a restless Woods on Saturday evening. Tiger had finished dinner at the Old Course Hotel and couldn’t sit still, just steps from his favorite golf course in the world. So he and Thomas met on the 1st hole and chipped and putted their way around all 18 holes on one of those endless Scottish summer nights. Woods didn’t think anyone in town would notice, but about 100 spectators came out to watch. They finished under the glow of street lamps. Thomas calls it “one of the coolest evenings ever.”
There’s a short list of pros who are getting that Old Course invite; it might be just one golfer long. There’s a similarly short list of pros who have an open invite to Woods’ palatial backyard in Hobe Sound, Fla. Backyard pitching contests have no doubt played a role in JT becoming one of the Tour leaders in Strokes Gained: Around the Green. Couples had one word to describe Thomas’ short game: insane. Paradoxically, it’s the elder statesman who appreciates the access that Tiger and JT give him.
Couples lives on the opposite coast and relies on a very active text thread among the three of them. “Sometimes,” he says, “we’ll go at it every night for a month.”
How else does Woods make Thomas better? Woods has been a little coy about their bond, and JT indulges the media by repeating simply that Tiger has helped him become a more “complete” player. When I press for specifics, he finally caves — a bit. Whatever he’s learned, Thomas says, you can find within the “freakin’ zone” Woods was in as Team USA’s player-captain at the 2019 Presidents Cup. Woods handpicked Thomas as his partner that week and the duo went undefeated. Three years removed, Little Brother talks of it like a spiritual awakening. Big Brother’s incredible shot variety rubbed off on him.
“Now I feel like there are pins I can get close to that some people can’t,” Thomas says. “And that’s kind of the point of it. I mean, you never know when I’m going to be standing in the 18th fairway of a major, and you’ve got some crazy pin, and it slopes way left or right. If you can hit a 30- or 40-yard slice, you can get it close. Now it’s like, ‘Okay, just give me a couple more clubs and I feel like I can do it.’”
BEFORE LONG, THE SUN HAS DECIDED that JT’s workday is near its end. He and the team of Greyson creatives have traveled a dozen miles southwest to take more photographs and shoot video at Panther National, a Palm Beach Gardens course Thomas is consulting on with Jack Nicklaus. Course architecture is another realm in which JT has invested his money — multiple millions, at that — and is building out his future on and off the course. As the light fades, he’s relaxed, if a little annoyed that he didn’t get a workout in. His father and coach, Mike Thomas, has arrived. With the senior Thomas, I raise the question of his son’s pursuit of edges. Dad jumps in excitedly: “What was Justin’s answer?”
I didn’t want to lead the witness, so I lie and say he didn’t give me one. I’ve been asking everyone in JT’s world the same question: Where, in Justin, do you see the chase? Smylie Kaufman thinks back on that night in Japan in 2016, when he and Thomas noticed Brooks Koepka at the bar, throwing back glass after glass… of water. They were gobsmacked. But Koepka won that week, and soon enough Thomas had banned alcohol from his tournament weeks, too.
Bones Mackay cites this year’s Phoenix Open. Mackay had risen to the rank of All-Time Great Caddie by securing VIP passes for Thomas and his wife to an exclusive Drake concert, held a half mile away in an airport hangar. Drake is one of Thomas’ favorite artists, and he’d never seen Drake live. Alex Rodriguez was there, Cher was there, and countless NFL stars with the Super Bowl in town. JT was not. The show started too late, and Thomas is as loyal to his sleep as he is to his new diet. If you text him after 10 p.m., don’t expect a response.
When I asked JT himself about pursuit of edges he pointed to the Saturday evening of the 2017 PGA Championship. He skipped the media scrum after his round, raced to the range, hit about a dozen balls and rapped a couple putts — a five-minute grind sesh before the course went dark. The next afternoon, he was cradling the Wanamaker trophy. “It’s just a lot of little things,” he says.
His father has other ideas. “It’s putting, 100 percent.” I was puzzled. Had Mike confused the pursuit of an edge with the acknowledgment of a weakness? Perhaps they’re one and the same.
“He doesn’t make enough putts,” Mike says. “When the best players play poorly, they make a lotta putts that day. The next day, they hit it better and still make a lotta putts.” He speaks with the bluntness of an intimate who has been on this journey for 30 years, too. But he’s grinning as he says it.
“Now they’re in the top 5, contending. His good putting days are really good, but his bad putting days are bad. His bad putting days gotta be better.”
JT would have to agree. His father spent that morning pouring putting stats from the Florida Swing into a spreadsheet. He tells me he sent them to Justin and Bones with a message: “For the next 10 days, this is what we’re focused on heading into Augusta.”
ON PAPER, JUSTIN MISSED THE CUT at the Masters by one shot, his first MC in eight tries at Augusta National. On paper, his putting stats drooped below average, again. In person, no piece of paper would have held up. Not given what Mother Nature was doing. Thomas was two under par through 28-and-a-half holes of the Masters when the heavens opened and multiple inches of rain fell on the end of the second round. Thomas played his final eight holes on Saturday morning in six over par.
And so as eventual champion Jon Rahm tapped in to finish his second round, there was Thomas on the broadcast, staring off into space, despondent. If the T10 at the Valspar stung, this must have been electrocuting. About an hour earlier he’d been smiling and laughing, playing the 14th hole with a mic in his ear, chatting away with the CBS broadcast. But now he stood outside the scoring area frozen in place wearing the same look, growing increasingly wetter as he waited for his caddie and bag.
His mom, dad and wife looked on from a couple paces away. They had trudged through the pine straw and up and down muddy hills, trying their best to peer through the maze of umbrellas. It felt like bad luck had gotten the best of him at the year’s first major. It looked miserable. I stood there in the rain, too, about 20 yards away, thinking back to March when a number of people closest to Thomas told me he can be too hard on himself. One of those people was Thomas himself. The pursuit can be unwieldy.
He deals with doubts and second-guessing and reining in his emotions. He can want it too bad, he says. That results in a tenseness that he struggles to explain.
“I can feel what it feels like,” Thomas says, “but I don’t know how to necessarily describe it.”
Thomas didn’t speak with the media that soggy Saturday morning in Augusta. But then again, he wasn’t asked. The next time we heard from him told a story in itself. Rather than shut the Masters out and move on from the final missed accomplishment of his twenties, Thomas leaned back in. Like all the way. He spent Masters Sunday live-tweeting his thoughts as the final round played out on the television in front of him.
“Play my last 8 holes +6 in miserable conditions yesterday to MC… and STILL all I want to do is watch the golf today,” Thomas wrote. He couldn’t help himself.
“Some call it obsessed…I’m not really sure what I should call it but I’m some kind of sicko.”
The original version of this article appeared in the May 2023 issue of GOLF.