Justin Thomas was 16 years old when he made his PGA Tour debut with a 65 in the Wyndham Championship, the start of a career that has been filled with big moments and very little trouble.
The son and grandson of PGA professionals, he won the PGA Championship for his first major at 24. He reached No. 1 in the world. He won a FedEx Cup title. He had blue-chip sponsors. And he ended last year playing with his father, Mike, as they won the PNC Championship.
A new year of hope brought turmoil he never imagined and a test unlike anything he ever found on a golf course.
“I’ve had stuff happen in my life I never thought I’d have happen,” Thomas said Sunday evening after he added another big moment to a young career already filled with them by winning The Players Championship.
“I had to figure it out and had to get over it,” he said. “If I wanted to throw a pity party for myself or feel sorry for myself, there’s no reason to show up, and I can stay home until I feel like I’m ready. … It tested me mentally, physically, emotionally. And I’m very proud of myself for getting it done.”
He got it done in a big way. Coming off two missed cuts in four starts since his world felt like it was crashing in around him, Thomas was outside the cut line with nine holes to play on Friday when he made four birdies. From there, he matched the lowest final 36-hole score (64-68) at the treacherous TPC Sawgrass for a one-shot victory over Lee Westwood.
The ball striking was so sublime that Thomas, who rallied from three shots behind with a 4-under 68, was on the verge of becoming the first winner to hit every green in the final round. He hit the fringe on the final hole.
Thomas choked up thinking about his grandfather, Paul, who died last month. Mike Thomas broke down thinking about the toll the last few months have taken on him and his son.
“I told him today when it was over that looked like a round of the old Justin Thomas,” the father said.
Winning doesn’t take care of everything, but it doesn’t hurt. Thomas needed this one, and he found the right time to deliver a performance that, except for a pair of three-putt bogeys, was close to flawless.
He was in contention at Kapalua on the weekend when he missed a short par putt and muttered an anti-gay slur under his breath that was barely audible on the hot mic and much louder on social media. After two days of owning the mistake and apologizing in interviews, his clothing sponsor dropped him. Another one publicly reprimanded him.
Thomas missed the cut in Abu Dhabi and was in the mix at the Phoenix Open when he received word before the final round his grandfather had died. He tied for 13th and sobbed after his round.
“The hardest round I’ve ever played,” Thomas said.
He missed the cut at Riviera. Word is the tournament host, Tiger Woods, sent a text message when he arrived in Los Angeles on Friday night suggesting they meet up for dinner _ knowing Thomas had missed the cut and was heading home. Woods has taken so much to Thomas and his family that the needle is always out.
A few days later, Woods was seriously injured in a car crash in Los Angeles and Thomas was emotional talking about it.
It’s been a lot.
Thomas sought professional help and was not embarrassed to admit it. He had plenty of support from his family and his girlfriend, Jill Wisniewski.
“I reached out to talk to people to kind of let my feelings out and just discuss stuff with them,” Thomas said. “I think it’s something, especially at our level, a lot of people probably think that they’re bigger and better than that, but some of the thoughts and things I was feeling, it wasn’t fair to myself, and I needed to do something.”
His head was in the right place over the weekend, and so was his game. It was a timely victory, not so much because the Masters is around the corner but because he needed to put the first rough patch in his career behind him.
“It’s just the first time for a young kid that it all steamrolled and hit him at once,” the father said.
Mike Thomas watched his son at Riviera and could barely recognize him inside the ropes with the missed shots, the ordinary wedge game, the indifference. Only three players had a worse 36-hole there, one of them still in college.
The son he saw on the weekend at Sawgrass looked more family. The old Justin Thomas.
“I kept telling everyone I’m ready for something good to happen this year,” Thomas said. “It’s been a pretty bad year and a lot of bad things have happened, but that’s life. That’s part of it. And you’ve got to take it for what it is and try to get better because of it.
“Yeah, I’d say this qualifies as something good.”
© 2021 The Canadian Press