Five Years ago, Justin Thomas sat on the back porch at the Harbour Town Golf Links clubhouse and sounded like a 22-year-old who wanted to fast forward to his future.
Thomas had one PGA Tour victory – the CIMB Classic in late 2015 – but his long-time friend, Jordan Spieth, had already won seven times, including two major championships.
“I would like to be a lot farther along in the process than I am,” Thomas said that April day. “A lot more times in contention, more wins for sure.
“I feel like I’ve not underachieved, I’ve done a lot of great things, but I feel like there are things I could have done better and done more of. It doesn’t help with some of the things the other young guys are doing and being reminded every week in the media of what they’re doing and I haven’t done this or done that. I’m aware of that.”
Again, Thomas was 22, an age when many of his peers were finishing college and chasing their first jobs. He was already a success at golf’s highest level but frustrated by not being better than he was.
Five years later, Thomas has 14 PGA Tour victories including a PGA Championship and the Players Championship, achievements that still feel like the start of something, not necessarily the culmination. He’s also won two World Golf Championships and the season-long FedEx Cup in 2017.
If Thomas was chasing Spieth five years ago, the script has been flipped. He has won 10 times since Spieth’s last victory. That speaks to Thomas’s steady progression while Spieth is finally digging himself out of an extended dark spell, gaining on an accomplishment that would glitter like another major championship trophy.
In winning at the Stadium Course on Sunday, Thomas showed his immense talent – the 64 he shot on Saturday was museum quality – while also overcoming the personal challenges that had accumulated since January.
“Resilient,” his caddie Jimmy Johnson said Sunday when asked what the performance said about Thomas. “He’s grown up a lot.”
Winning tournaments isn’t always about the shots a player hits and that was especially true for Thomas, whose emotions afterward provided a glimpse into what he’s been carrying with him since his public-relations mess, the death of his grandfather and Tiger Woods’ accident.
“Resilient,” his caddie Jimmy Johnson said Sunday when asked what the performance said about Thomas.
“He’s grown up a lot.”
Johnson said Thomas had seemed distracted at times in recent weeks, working his way through all that had happened. By the Players Championship, the focus had returned even if his two opening rounds of 71 didn’t necessarily portend what he would do over the weekend.
As his father/teacher, Mike, said afterward, it looked like how the old Justin Thomas played, adding “If he had that putter rocking and rolling, he’d have won by six or seven.”
That’s how good Thomas can be, capable of going where only a handful of other players can. There wasn’t a eureka moment during a range session at Sawgrass. Thomas and his father continually check the same swing keys – making sure his club is more down the line rather than across it at the top of his swing – and it was the same thing at the Players.
“He was close all week,” Mike Thomas said. “It was nice to see him out there striping it.”
The shots that will be remembered are the 5-iron that set up a tap-in eagle at the par-5 16th on Saturday and the too-close-for-comfort tee shot on the finishing hole on Sunday, among others. But Thomas could feel a shift on Friday when he birdied the 16th and 18th holes to get off the cut line. It didn’t seem big at the time but it gave him a sense of momentum that’s been missing.
From there, everything fell into place, at least on the golf course.
“I had to figure it out and had to get over it, and 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,” Thomas said of his emotional struggles.
“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. I felt like I was in a good enough head space where I could play. I just wasn’t playing well.”
Five years ago, Thomas sat on the porch at Harbour Town talking about what could be, tempering his impatience as best he could.
Sunday at the Players Championship was a monument to how far he’s come.
Justin Thomas reacts after sinking a putt Sunday on the 72nd hole of the Players Championship. Photo: David Rosenblum, Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.
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