Millions of sports fans watched ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary on Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls. But there are few people who watched and actually know the man in the documentary — a group that includes mostly former teammates, friends, family members and acquaintances.
Count Justin Thomas among that group.
Thomas has hit the golf course several times with Jordan — even back when he was a teenager — and has hung out with him off the course as well.
“I loved it so much because I’ve been very fortunate to get to know him just from living in the same area and playing a lot of golf with him, so I see the golf side of him when we go out and mess around, I’ve seen the fishing side when we go fishing or just the fun side,” Thomas said on Wednesday at the Travelers Championship. “But that’s the only side to him that I’ve never seen. I haven’t seen — I’ve seen highlights, but like I’ve never heard — I don’t ask him about basketball. I don’t want to be that person when I’m around him. But to just hear and see how that team went about and to understand the trades that happened and why they happened and why his decisions were doing what he was doing.
“But just his will to win, and he was going to do anything and everything possible, it’s something that you can’t — you don’t just learn it. It’s not something that just happens overnight. I think you’re really just born with it. He wants to be better than everybody else. He wanted to be better than everybody else, and he was going to work hard and do everything he could to get there.”
Thomas said seeing how hard Jordan was on some of his teammates — how demanding he was to make them and the team better — reminded him of the relationship he has with one of his friends who is currently trying to work his way up to the PGA Tour.
“I’m very hard on him, but because he’s a good friend of mine, I’m very honest with him,” Thomas said. “After him watching that, I think I was able to like say, ‘You know all that crap I give you, this is the same exact thing.’ The way Jordan was giving his teammates, the way he was giving them jabs, the way he was poking fun at them, the way that it seemed like he was talking down to them, it was to get them better, it’s to toughen them up, it’s to see how they were going to rise to the occasion. It was kind of little things like that to where — man, it was unbelievable.”
Thomas, one of the most fiery players on Tour, said he’d “never been more motivated watching anything in (his) life than I was watching ‘The Last Dance.'” But that competitive side of Jordan was something Thomas was used to seeing on the golf course. One instance, for example, came when Thomas was just 16 years old.
In a story Thomas told to the Action Network’s Jason Sobel a couple of years ago, Jordan and some of his friends would often stop at Harmony Landing for a round before going to the Kentucky Derby. Harmony Landing, in Goshen, Ky., is where Thomas grew up, as his dad and coach, Mike Thomas, was (and still is) the head pro there. Justin Thomas said he started caddying for Jordan’s group when he was as young as 13, but he finally got the call to join them when he was 16.
“I was riding with MJ,” Thomas said. “When we got to the first hole, he said, ‘Go get your clubs.’ He told [his group], ‘Alright, I’ve got the little man. We’ll take whoever wants us.’ There’s eight people. He wouldn’t tell me the game; he said I didn’t need to hear that.”
Thomas, playing from the same tees, went on a late run.
“We played the last seven holes and I made four birdies,” he said. “We drummed ’em pretty good. That was fun. He just made me feel comfortable. I’d played in some big national tournaments, but that was the biggest deal I’ve ever played in. It was pretty cool. We had a pretty memorable day that we still talk about. He always took care of everybody tipping, so let’s just say my tip was a little bigger that year.”