When Rory McIlroy’s roller-coaster weekend began sputtering to a halt on Sunday afternoon, I found myself in need of a rooting interest for the final stretch of the 2022 PGA Championship. Mito Pereira was hanging tough at the top of the leaderboard, but I didn’t feel comfortable pulling for someone who’d arrived at this moment a few years ahead of schedule. The same was true for Cameron Young, a star on the rise who might be ready to take his next Sunday back nine by the throat. Matt Fitzpatrick was holding his day together with hot glue and safety pins. I couldn’t watch another short-range putt from Will Zalatoris without peeking through my fingers like I might at a horror movie.
I found myself drawn to the guy lurking further down the board with championship pedigree, the one who survived the brutal late-early wave draw earlier in the week by carving shots around Southern Hills like a sculptor. That meant cheering for Justin Thomas, the eventual champion and the one guy in the field with whom I have a complicated history. I’m a gay man, and hearing JT mutter “faggot” on a hot mic at Kapalua last year lingers in the back of my mind whenever I watch him pipe a drive or pour in a birdie.
At this point it’s less about the mistake or JT’s personal level of contrition — I understand it was an embarrassing and regrettable experience for him — than the way it’s become little more than a footnote. Thomas lost a few sponsors, but his slip-up was ultimately bundled in with personal tragedy and other issues to suit a simpler narrative about “adversity,” one that was resolved when he triumphed in similarly scintillating fashion at the 2021 Players Championship. Golf Digest’s Dan Rapaport joked on Twitter Sunday night that Greyson, Thomas’ new apparel provider, made a good investment in JT; what went unsaid is that he isn’t wearing Ralph Lauren anymore for a reason.
I wrote last year about “the fear that this will pass in a few days and nothing’s really going to change.” It’s been nearly 18 months and that prediction feels dishearteningly accurate. Pride month is coming up and my expectations for any sort of recognition from the world of men’s professional golf are non-existent. (How hard would it be to take some cues from their peers at the LPGA?) And to be completely honest, there’s always been something about JT’s demeanor — his self-conscious swagger, his “bromance”-style relationships with Tiger Woods and other players, even his vibe on Twitter — that strikes me as masculinity at its most frustrating, like someone’s trying to perform the role of the coolest dude in the room.
That same swagger is what informs some of the most electric shot-making on the planet, which is where my head and my heart collide. It’s commonly accepted wisdom at this point that Thomas owns the deepest bag on tour, the special blend of courage, creativity, and skill that makes anything possible on a golf course. I’m a 15 handicap who’d need a lobotomy to turn the ball over and whose main goal around the green is avoiding an emotional breakdown; when I watch Justin Thomas play golf, it’s like beholding an actual magician or some kind of humanoid alien. I already touched on his master class in the wind on Thursday and Friday, and some of the shots he hit on Sunday afternoon — the sizzling low cut on 18 in regulation, that tender 3-wood on 17 that landed in the perfect spot and scooted onto the green — instantly became part of golf history. There were moments of genius earlier in the round, too: a shot like his chip on 3, even though he couldn’t save par, is unfathomable to a player like me. We have to consider that he shanked one on 6 just to prove he was human. It was inspired, inspiring play.
JT on 18 at Southern Hills and TPC Sawgrass. Shotmaking. pic.twitter.com/Dzg4qcsFxh
— The Fried Egg (@the_fried_egg) May 23, 2022
A friend joked Sunday night that I was working through golf’s version of separating art from the artist, and there are certainly no shortage of opportunities to do so in this sport. You can respect Patrick Reed’s short-game skill and imagination while acknowledging he’s a certified goober. I admire Bryson DeChambeau’s work ethic and sheer audacity even as he’s made a baffling pivot into long drive championships and content creation. Even something as silly as Billy Horschel’s silky tempo and course management lives alongside his ridiculous antics. These guys don’t have to be role models.
Justin Thomas is never going to be my favorite player, and his use of a slur that stings me for something I love about myself will always be more than a footnote. If other gay golf fans are reading this and can’t get past what happened last year, I completely understand. But with the 2022 PGA Championship in the rear-view mirror, I’ve reached a point where I can reconcile my personal hurt and appreciate the golfer in front of me: a generational talent who hits the shots that give you “full body chills” when the pressure is highest. He turned what could’ve been a moribund major into an afternoon spent on the edge of my seat.