PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Justin Thomas finally had a good day.
For two months, since January 9 to be precise, Thomas has been caught up in a vortex of emotion and turmoil away from the golf course. It’s been a rough ride that has cost him a sponsor and taken its toll on his play inside the gallery ropes while challenging him during his time way from the golf course.
On Saturday, however, in the third round of The Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s flagship event on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, Thomas complemented an assortment of outstanding shots with plenty of smiles and fist pumps and exchanged numerous hand slaps with his caddie, Jimmy Johnson.
“Yes. It is,” was his direct response when asked if that was the best he’s felt on a golf course in a while, seeing as he shot 8-under-par 64 – the best score of the tournament – to storm up the leaderboard and into contention to win his first Players. His rounds of 71-71-64 have him at 10 under and on the first page of the leaderboard.
That was it. Question asked, question answered.
Clearly, Thomas would rather not rehash once again the fateful day in January in Maui when the golf telecast caught him muttering a homophobic slur after missing a short putt in the third round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
Thomas immediately manned up and apologized after the round and has repeatedly done so ever since when asked about the incident and its aftermath. Ralph Lauren dropped him as a sponsor; Citi publicly scolded him.
But Thomas has said he will learn from his mistake and be a better person.
Then, on Feb. 6, one of his best friends, his grandfather, Paul, passed at 89.
That’s a 1-2 punch to the head and heart that effected his play. In four starts heading into The Players, the world No. 3 who’s won 11 times since the start of 2017, become No. 1 in the world and captured the FedEx Cup, missed two cuts and posted ties for 13th and 15th.
“I have definitely been better,” he said earlier in the week. “But at the same time it’s a good opportunity for me to try to grow and learn and get stronger because of it. I think it’s kind of put a lot of things in perspective, and unfortunately for my golf, it’s taken a toll on that a little bit.”
And then he began the third round with four consecutive birdies on a bright day. Heading to the fifth hole, he just wanted to keep the hammer down. But after a perfect drive on the fifth, he double-crossed with his approach and made bogey. He got back on the birdie train at the seventh, then went back-to-back red on the 10th and 11th. His best shot, however, came on the par-5 16th when he ripped 5-iron from 204 yards to seven inches and a tap-in eagle.
“I wish all rounds were that easy. I hit the ball beautifully, I drove it well, I hit a couple squirrelly shots there at the end of the front nine, but the good part is that I knew why they were happening,” he said. “I knew what the swing flaw was, so I felt like I kind of bounced back from that pretty well.”
He’s bounced back slowly since the first month of the year and will continue to do so. A round of 64 can go a long way on the scoreboard and off the course, too.
“I’ve had definitely my fair share of lows this season and a lot of stuff going on mentally that I felt like I’ve never had to deal with and maybe taking things for granted or just not enjoying the game,” he said. “Being irritable, being frustrated, emotional on the golf course is not good for me. It’s definitely not good for Jimmy.
“Good golf and fun, unfortunately and fortunately, works together for the most part. I wish my mood and emotions weren’t so dependent on my golf, but golf is my life and it is my job, and I care a lot about it and I care a lot about how I play.
“But I’m trying to get better. I’m growing up a little bit, but at the same time it means a lot to me and playing well and winning tournaments means a lot as well.”