PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Who wants to grow up? Nobody. Like the sign says, Don’t Grow Up. It’s a Trap.
You’re a prodigy — you’re a Jack Nicklaus in the 1950s, a Tiger Woods in the ‘90s, a Justin Thomas in the aughts — and it all comes easily. You work. Of course you work. But everyone can see you for what you are. You’re a boy wonder.
You go from high school to college to the start of your career, riding your magic carpet. Man, it’s fun. Justin Thomas always looked like he was having a ball. Nicklaus said to him, “Call me Jack.” Tiger and JT each call the other Princess. JT is in with the in crowd. The idea that golf can make you feel all alone was foreign to him. His father was around. His caddie, his girlfriend, his sponsors, his touring brothers.
And then came this year, when life came barreling in. That is, Justin Thomas’ grownup life. By most appearances (because appearance matters more in golf than in most things), Thomas kind of looked like his regular, confident self. But he wasn’t fooling himself. His mind was so cluttered he couldn’t do what he was born to do.
Thomas does not go to Riviera and play in Tiger’s tournament and miss the cut. But he did. Thomas does not collect a massive appearance fee to play in a tournament in Abu Dhabi and miss the cut. But that’s what he did. Thomas used a homophobic slur directed at himself and the veil was lifted. Turns out, he is not perfect. Tiger, Justin’s mentor and friend, crashed a vehicle and is living these days in a hospital room. Thomas knows — he must — that Tiger’s life is nothing like perfect. Thomas’ golf-pro grandfather died. You can’t freeze time.
Suddenly, the world beyond the PGA Tour was right in Thomas’ face, and it was messy. Golfers don’t like messy. The game is hard enough when everything is in its proper place.
And now it is late on Sunday afternoon and he has played 70 holes of the 2021 Players Championship. He was in the penultimate group. He was leading. The one thing he had to do was keep his ball dry from the 17th tee to the bottom of the hole on 18. Easier said than done.
Earlier, he had a joy most of us will never know. He wrote down 3 in the box for the 10th hole, the 11th, the 12th and the 13th. No number is more pleasurable to write. When Thomas writes 3 it is perfect and round and neat, as human as a number can be. When you play four difficult holes in 12 shots, you’re going to turn your day around.
But now he needed a 3 on the par-3 17th. The hole was 133 yards, breeze kind of in his face, pin tucked and on the right.
He took his NetJets towel and wiped his clubface first and his face-face second. He spat. He tossed grass. Springtime on the PGA Tour was breaking out all around him, on the hillside behind him. The high sun. The warm air. The excitement of not knowing what will happen. The thing we have missed. The life that’s promising to come back. It’s knocking on the door.
Taking in that scene, it was hard to imagine Thomas on a plane, flying home from L.A. “My head was not in a good place then,” he said Sunday night. Flying home from Abu Dhabi, surely the same. Flying home from his grandfather’s funeral, the same. Sending texts to Tiger knowing they are going to his hospital room? That can’t be a good feeling. They should be planning a scouting trip to Augusta.
Thomas figured his sand wedge would fly an extra seven or eight yards, because of the adrenaline coursing through him. He hit a hard, high shot to the front of the green, the 17th straight green he hit in regulation.
“The hair on my arms and neck and legs was standing straight up walking to 17 green,” he said.
“The hair on my arms and neck and legs was standing straight up walking to 17 green.”
He made a hard two-putt look easy, as the best pros do. That’s one of the things that surely drew Woods to Thomas, that he plays like a pro and carries himself like a pro. He was likely drawn to Thomas’ warm relationship with his own club-pro father. In December, at the Father-Son event in Orlando, Justin and Mike Thomas and Charlie and Tiger Woods played several rounds together.
The last hole at the Stadium Course has a lake that runs down the left-hand side from start to finish. Thomas smashed a 5-wood and it went far too left. A heron took off beside him. He stared down his shot. It stayed dry by two yards. He draped his arms on the right shoulder of his veteran caddie, Jimmy Johnson, the caddie he has had for nearly all of his professional career, a tough and solid man who missed several events last year for health reasons. In that moment, you could see they were like brothers, almost. Thomas made a 4 on the last, signed for 68 and won by a shot over Lee Westwood, who was playing with Bryson DeChambeau in the day’s final twosome.
Those three will be together again when the Ryder Cup is played at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in September. This golf year is beginning in earnest now.
Thomas’ adulthood is beginning in earnest now. This was his first win as a full-fledged grownup. There’s no going back.
“I did a lot of things — I talked to people,” Thomas said of how he has handled this rough road. “I’m not embarrassed to say that I reached out to talk to people to kind of let my feelings out and just discuss stuff. Some of the thoughts and things I was feeling, it wasn’t fair to myself, and I needed to do something.”
He didn’t offer anything more specific than that. Nor did he need to.
What Thomas was saying brings to mind something Kathy Whitworth, the LPGA legend, said recently. Asked at the end of long series of interviews to summarize what she has learned in her 81 years, she said, “We can all be honest with ourselves. We can accept who we are. But we can change the things we think need changing.” She paused and concluded with this: “You should like yourself.” Whitworth and Thomas’ grandfather, Paul, were contemporaries. Paul Thomas was 89 when he died.
Steve Sands of NBC Sports, a superb interviewer, asked Thomas about his grandfather on Sunday night. Holding back tears, Thomas said, “I wish he could have been here.”
Thomas has now seen death at close view. He surely knows that Tiger Woods is lucky to be alive. He knows like never before that words have power, the power to hurt and the power to heal. He surely knows that life’s not easy and it’s better that way.
The win was the 14th of his career and, alongside his 2017 PGA Championship win, his most meaningful.
“God-dang, man,” he told Sands after the interview. “Why’d you have to do that to me?”
It wasn’t Sands. It was this thing called life.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com