Did you know Justin Thomas is friends with Tiger Woods? It’s true. They’re very close. They both have mansions in Jupiter. Thomas is close with Tiger’s son. In 2020, after Thomas gave a pre-tournament interview about how Charlie Woods loved to talk shit, Charlie did, in fact, talk some shit—or pull a prank, or something—to Justin and Mike Thomas at the PNC Championship. Cute. A few years later, Tiger also pranked JT at a tournament. Less cute.
Did you know Justin Thomas is friends with Jordan Spieth? It’s true. They’ve known each other since they were tweens. Jordan was the best man at Justin’s wedding earlier this year. Justin introduced Jordan to Michael Greller. They’re surefire partners at the Ryder Cup. They go on vacations together. They play well-publicized pranks on each other, too.
The laboring first episode of Full Swing hammered this home, again and again: Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth are elite golfers who have been friends for a long time. Perhaps with some tweaks or more forthcoming interview subjects, this could have made for interesting television, but instead it just left me with two questions: Why wasn’t this just a story about Jordan Spieth, a player who had everything at age 21, then lost his game and is working to find it again? and Is anything actually interesting about Justin Thomas?
To anybody not already interested in golf, the answer is no. Thomas is a third-generation PGA pro from a warm-weather state who played golf at a strong college program. He has two first names and few defining physical attributes—he is not particularly short or tall, not too muscled or scarily slight. He would not stand out at a country club.
This, I think, is why the story of Justin Thomas is so often told through his friendships. It’s easy. A golfer does not become a superstar by simply being very good. There are very few golfers, just one or two in a generation, who are good enough to become stars without selling a story—this is something that players like Bryson DeChambeau and Max Homa understand. Only the great ones are allowed the luxury of being boring. And so, when we look at Thomas and see neither tragedy nor unexpected triumph nor any particular quirk, good or bad, we go searching for something else. Is this the best we can find?
It’s been about a year since Justin Thomas last won a golf tournament. Granted, that tournament was a big one. At the 2022 PGA Championship, there were some of those startling heights: the final-round 67 on a windy day that allowed Thomas to make up seven shots on the leader, the squealing cut 3-wood off the tee on the second hole of the playoff that landed on the green and ended up, more or less, sealing the tournament. But, since then: T37 at Brookline, T53 at St. Andrews, and the missed cut at the Masters after a second-round 78 and a bogey-bogey finish. It seems like a bit of a waste, doesn’t it?
Justin Thomas has all the shots. Perhaps that’s part of what Tiger sees in him. He can hit it high and low, hit a stock knuckle cut and a diving, chasing hook. He has, for my money, the most beautiful swing in today’s game, a twisting lash that is both somehow languid and aggressive. He is not a big man, and he swings like he knows it. He is not Adam Scott or Nelly Korda, all long levers and easy tempo. Neither is he DeChambeau, flailing around beyond his limits. He’s right, perfectly, on the razor’s edge.
JT has every shot. pic.twitter.com/cLj4nFNob0
— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) March 12, 2022
There are two rounds of golf that Justin Thomas has played that I will never forget. One is quite famous: in the third round of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, he shot a blistering 63, tied for the lowest round in tournament history, with two bogeys on the card. On the monstrous 667-yard 18th hole, he made eagle after reaching the green in two. His second on that hole, a 3-wood rifle shot that seemed locked onto the flag from about 300 yards away, is famous enough to have earned a commemorative plaque on the course. It’s easily forgotten that he pulled 3-wood off the tee as well.
The other round is from the Players Championship––not the 2021 edition where Thomas came away with a win, but rather the 2022 tournament. Players who got the bad side of the draw that year were bludgeoned in the second round, with the wind howling at over 25 miles per hour. At the hazardous-on-a-normal-day TPC Sawgrass, things got ugly. Xander Schauffele shot 78. Spieth shot 79. Brooks Koepka shot 81. Thomas had, seemingly, no trouble. He flighted his irons and hit fairway woods into par 4s. He made the ball scream and swoop and sit. He shot an impossible 69, two strokes better than Cam Smith, who was both the hottest player in golf at the time and on the calm side of the draw. Commentators say with excessive regularity that golfers are in total control of the ball. But this was total control, the type of performance that makes you want to say foolish things. The kind that made me say: He’s the best I’ve ever seen.
Justin Thomas is not the best golfer I’ve ever seen. Of course he’s not. But the point is: sometimes it seems like he could be. That’s what makes watching him so confusing and frustrating. Why, when he can control the ball like that, is his record at The Open so unremarkable? He’s capable of reaching such soaring heights, but then it all falls away, and we’re reduced to talking about his more-famous friends.
Some of my colleagues here at The Fried Egg regularly have fun poking at Thomas’s thirstiness. Even the biggest JT fans must admit that he can be cloying at times. The beer chugging at the Ryder Cup, the awkward, canned celebrations, it can all be a bit much. (Sometimes, I wish that he would let loose a little more, and sometimes, well…I realize I may not want to know too much about what he says with the cameras off.) It’s probably good to want to be liked a little bit, lest one end up becoming Patrick Cantlay, but watching JT try so hard, it’s easy to wonder: what’s the point of all this stilted peacocking?
The story of nearly every great golfer in the post-Tiger era is about reclamation. Rory McIlroy and Spieth and Koepka, today, are all looking backward, trying to find something. Of every active player with multiple major wins, only Jon Rahm is playing with inertia on his side. Thomas is somewhere in between the mountaintop and the wilderness. Maybe that’s what the antics are about: creating something to talk about besides that quest for the next major.
I, frankly, don’t know whether or not Oak Hill, of the year’s remaining major venues, is the best course fit for Thomas. If the wind blows at Hoylake, perhaps that might make for a better opportunity—despite his aforementioned lackluster results at that major, he had his best finish at the Open in 2019, the last time there were adverse conditions of any sort at the tournament. But a cold, wet week in Rochester doesn’t sound like the worst place for a shotmaker to separate from the competition.
The last time the PGA Championship went to Oak Hill, Justin Thomas was not in the field. He was 20 and grinding on the Web.com Tour. He wouldn’t have full status on the PGA Tour for two more years. That’s all to say: a lot has happened relatively quickly for JT. Fifteen wins in a little more than seven seasons. There’s plenty of time left for him to become one of the great ones, and if he continues winning at this pace, he will be. But golf doesn’t work that way; form is not assured. Sometimes, (often!) once you lose your edge, you never get it back. So snatch the wins up while you can. While you still have all the shots.