CRAWFORD | Thomas lets down guard, rides emotion into PGA
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Getting genuine emotion out of a successful PGA golfer, especially before a competitive round is over, is like getting water from a cactus. And catch up with a guy like Justin Thomas, for instance, right after a round, and he’s likely just as dry.
That wasn’t the case on Sunday afternoon at the Bridgestone Invitational. Thomas walked to his ball on the 18th green, marked it, then turned and saw his family. His parents. His grandmother, Phyllis, who had been tooling around the Firestone Country Club course with a walker. His grandfather, Paul Thomas, who played at Firestone in the 1960 PGA Championship, looked on. It was the first time they’d seen him win a PGA Tour event in person.
After sinking his putt to win the tournament by three strokes, collecting $1.7 million in winnings and moving up to No. 2 in the world golf rankings, Thomas remembered the emotions with some emotion.
“It was pretty special,” Thomas said. “I can’t really put it into words honestly. When I had my putt, I marked it and turned around and saw my parents, and saw my grandma and grandpa, and I had a huge knot in my throat. I just had to put my head down. I never have gotten like that on the golf course before. You just don’t know if they’re ever going to see me win if I don’t win here.”
But Thomas won, building a head of steam for this week’s PGA Championship at Bellerive Golf Course outside St. Louis. He is the event’s defending champion. He’ll tee off his first round in a glamor grouping with Tiger Woods and good friend Rory McIlroy.
He comes into the tournament now with eight tour wins since the start of last season, more than anyone else on the tour.
“I’m just in a great place mentally right now,” Thomas said. “I was so patient and calm all week. I think I made maybe six bogeys all week, which is pretty good around this place with the number of birdies I make. . . . I played pretty well. If I missed fairways, I missed them on the right sides.”
Not bad for a guy who entered the week looking for a few answers. He wasn’t playing poorly. But he also hadn’t won a tour event in five months and was antsy for more hardware. So he called a “team meeting” with caddie Jimmy Johnson and his father and coach, Mike Thomas.
“It potentially helped a lot,” Thomas said. “But at the end of the day, if I’m not in the right place myself, I’m not going to be in the right place. Yeah, Jimmy is now going to know better things to say to me or my dad is going to know things that I want to hear. But if I’m angry or crabby, then I’m going to be angry or crabby. Everybody knows some days or weeks you wake up and you’re happy or in a good spot, and some days you’re not. I was able to get a lot off my chest that I felt I needed or wanted to. And I think Jimmy was able to do the same. And that’s something I stressed to him so hard: there’s no hard feelings in this relationship. We’re both in this for the same reason. We want me and him to perform the best that we can. So for that to happen, we need to be honest with each other, and brutally honest at times. Not that we were on Tuesday, but we were just able to kind of let some things out that we felt that we needed to.”
There’s pressure to win, and there’s hunger to win, and those elements act differently on anyone, but Thomas said he was perhaps pressing a bit. Of course, he also was placing some pretty lofty expectations on himself, especially this week in Akron, with his parents and grandparents both in attendance.
“It was a lot of, I hate to say pressure, but it was,” Thomas said. “I wanted to win with them here so bad. They mean so much to me and they’ve been so influential in my whole life. It was definitely an emotional moment.”
With CBS cameras following the family – and a live mic on Justin during the round – the nation got to meet these people.
Thomas described his grandmother as “a beauty.” He pulled out his phone and read reporters a text message she sent him before the French Open: “Dad told me you were on your way to France and that you had been sick all week. Hope you have some good s--t-kicking antibiotics. Hit ‘em good across the pond and be well.”
The room broke up laughing. “That’s grandma right there,” Thomas said.
He was asked how he thought it felt to his grandfather to be there when he won.
“It had to be pretty cool,” Thomas said. “The thing with my grandfather is he’s not very emotional. He’s very right in front of you, straight-laced. Like a lot of older people he’s very blunt and very honest. It’s pretty funny sometimes I’ll play well and maybe just not putt very well, and he’ll be like, ‘Ah, you just couldn’t make anything, huh?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah. I couldn’t. I know. Thanks.’ But I truly don’t know. My grandma is going to be a lot more likely to express how she felt about it than my grandpa. That’s just the kind of person that he is. But I hadn’t seen him smile or be that happy, maybe ever, so it was pretty cool to be the reason that he was like that.”
It is, for Thomas, a great confluence of good feeling, great play, and growing confidence, that makes him dangerous at the PGA Championship.
Earlier in the week, McIlroy told reporters of Thomas, “He's got a nasty streak in him, which I think you need out here. He has that.”
Last week in Ohio, we saw that “nasty streak,” combine with Thomas’ softer side. It looked good on him.
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