PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Seated in the front row at the outdoor trophy presentation, Mike Thomas wiped his eyes, his nose, his mouth. Normally stoic behind mirrored sunglasses and a black neck gaiter, he’d finally broken down – the toll of a trying few months, both as a father and as a son. Needing to gather himself, he hiked up his pants, ambled over and patted his only child on the shoulder.
“That looked like a round by the old Justin Thomas,” he beamed.
No doubt, the quality of Thomas’ play looked frighteningly familiar – the laser irons and the birdie binges and the putter raises. They all added up to a masterful final-round performance at TPC Sawgrass, where he putted for birdie on every hole, shot a 4-under 68 and won The Players Championship by a shot over Lee Westwood. Add another line to his résumé: He’s just the fourth player to win a major, The Players, a World Golf Championship and the FedExCup. At 27, he’s already a lock for the Hall of Fame.
But his buoyant mood afterward belied what had been, in his words, a “crappy couple months,” and was the reason why he and his family were overcome with the kind of emotion that hadn’t been seen during his previous 13 titles.
“I kept telling everyone on my team and my family that 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.”
Yes, there were bad things, plural, starting with the anti-gay slur that he uttered to himself and was picked up by a hot mic at the opening event of 2021. But since then, the question has become how much penance is sufficient. Thomas had apologized profusely, in multiple interviews, and seemed appropriately contrite and sincere. He publicly stated that he understood why a longtime sponsor would dump him. He vowed to go through sensitivity training to better himself. And yet he still seemed to carry the weight of that mistake with him, a scarlet letter on a nearly logo-less polo.
“I think the pushback hurt him,” Mike Thomas said. “It was the first time that he was faced with something like that, and it hurt him a lot. He had much more support, but I think it’s human nature that you focus on the negatives.”
Superstars have weathered all sorts of controversies. Sex scandals. Substance-abuse problems. Domestic-violence incidents. It’s a reminder that these athletes are still human beings who have flaws other than just an erratic driver or streaky putting stroke. No one in the Internet age has endured more PR crises than Thomas’ boyhood idol, Tiger Woods. In 2013, after Woods won for the first time since his personal life unraveled following sordid details of infidelity, Nike released an advertising campaign proclaiming that “winning takes care of everything.” His popularity rating at the time suggested otherwise, but sports fans are a forgiving bunch. They love winners and greatness, and Woods’ enduring appeal underscores that.
Represented by the same management company as Woods, Thomas continued to say all the right things, but his shaky play and cluttered mind didn't allow him to shift the narrative. “It was just a lot, and it took a lot out of me mentally,” he said. “But at the same time, I had to figure it out and had to get over it. If I wanted to come to these tournaments and have a chance to win, then I needed to suck it up and get over it. If I wanted to throw a pity party for myself, or feel sorry for myself, then there’s no reason to show up, and I can stay home until I feel like I’m ready. I felt like I was in a good enough head space where I could play. I just wasn’t playing well. And then once I wasn’t playing well, it was kind of snowballing.”
A month later, on the eve of the final round in Phoenix, Thomas learned that his 89-year-old grandfather, Paul, a lifelong PGA member and the patriarch of a golfing family, had passed away. Thomas was in contention at the time, in a tie for fifth. Mike Thomas said his son considered not playing the final day. He forged ahead, in what he called the "hardest round I've ever played."
“I just told him ...” Mike Thomas said, breaking down in tears. He finally gathered himself after a 30-second pause. “I just knew my dad would have wanted him to go out and play. He played a great round that Sunday (72) with all that going on.”
Thomas showed up two weeks later at Riviera with his heart still broken and his game out of sorts. Five-hour rounds allow plenty of time for introspection – and to dwell on the turmoil in his personal life.
“He was just distracted,” said his caddie, Jimmy Johnson. “His concentration was lacking.”
A few days later, another distraction: Woods was seriously injured in a car crash in Southern California. At the time, Thomas was preparing to play in the World Golf Championships event outside Tampa. He learned the news about 15 minutes before his pre-tournament news conference. Little was known at the time of Woods’ condition, and Thomas wiped away tears while talking about how he hoped his close friend was OK.
“I think that hurt him a lot,” Mike Thomas said. “It’s just the first time for a young kid that it all steamrolled and hit him at once. We all go through that and that was his time. He fought through it. There’s people that have a whole lot more problems than we do, but that was his first time really dealing with the discomfort that comes with losing loved ones and the backlash of everything that happened before that.”
Encouraged by his girlfriend, Jill Wisniewski, Thomas sought professional help. “I’m not embarrassed to say that I reached out to talk to people to let my feelings out and just discuss stuff with them,” he said. “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 that I was feeling, it wasn’t fair to myself, and I needed to do something.”
Thomas arrived here at TPC Sawgrass in a better head space, if only slightly. Early in the week, when asked about his mental state, he allowed only that he was doing “OK” and that he has “definitely been better.” His game had once again given him few reasons for optimism. Uncharacteristically struggling off the tee, he was outside the cut line with nine holes to play in the second round and opened with consecutive rounds of 71, seven back heading into the weekend. Father and son worked on the range, trying to keep the club more down the line at the top of the swing.
“That’s all you need to do,” Mike told him.
In the third round, Thomas ripped off the low score of the tournament, an 8-under 64 that vaulted him into contention, three shots off the lead. Still, he downplayed his chances: “It was only one round. It’s not like I feel unbelievable again and I’m back to how I felt in 2017 or ’18.” On Sunday, he started slowly, playing the first eight holes in 1 over and remaining three back as he played the par-5 ninth. Facing a 236-yard shot into a narrow opening of the green, Thomas rifled a 5-iron that settled 23 feet away, leading to a two-putt birdie. The lid was off.
A 7-footer on 10. A 20-footer for eagle on 11. A slick up-and-down for another birdie on 12. He played a four-hole stretch in 5 under, leapfrogging Westwood. A two-putt birdie on the 16th gave him a one-shot advantage and capped a weekend score of 132 that matched a tournament record.
“That was a ball-striking clinic today,” Johnson said. Asked what the turnaround says about his boss, he added: “Resilient. He’s grown up a lot.”
This was the largest fan footprint in nine months, with roughly 10,000 streaming through the gates, and they’re reliably some of the most boisterous on Tour. The question lingered: How would they greet Thomas, after the controversy and his “crappy few months”?
With chants of “J-T! J-T!”
With calls of “Roll Tide!”
With a standing ovation as he strode toward the island green at 17.
Indeed, it sounded, felt and looked like a round by the old JT. He twirled his clubs and pumped his fist and hit a record-tying 17 greens in regulation – his only miss by a few inches on the closing hole, with a sand wedge.
“I’ve been working really hard on getting myself back to where I should be and where I want to be,” Thomas said. “Winning definitely helps. Winning helps everything.”
Waiting behind the 18th green was Mike Thomas, who is a fixture at tournaments and, unlike most golf dads, rarely shows emotion. He gave his son a hug and sent him on his way, but once someone mentioned how proud his dad must have felt, looking down, he lost it, and started sobbing into his neck gaiter.
His emotions were still raw a half hour later.
“He’s tougher than I am,” Mike Thomas said. “He’s just stayed himself through this. He hasn’t ranted about anything. He hasn’t gone off on anybody. He’s done the work. I’m proud of that. He’s a good kid. This is big for him. This is a big breakthrough.”