On the last swing of the 2021 Players Championship, Justin Thomas looked like his day was just getting started. Next to Bryson DeChambeau and Lee Westwood, Thomas stood out. In both demeanor and play — except for some putting hiccups — he seemed to sleepwalk toward victory. This wasn’t always how the 27-year-old handled himself in the public eye.
Thomas used to hit the course with fiery energy. After a controversy earlier this year made him reassess, he took on a poker player’s mentality. At the Players Championship, Thomas proved he can still take down the best competition. And he achieved something only three golfers — Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Johnny Miller — have done along the way.
Justin Thomas’ steadiness helped him at the Players Championship
Thomas’ path to his latest title win wasn’t clear for much of the Players Championship weekend. Golf Digest reports that the leaderboards had little clarity until no. 17 at TPC Sawgrass. On that infamous shot that tends to sort out a weekend in one tense go, Thomas, clad in his trademark polo, bordered on unblinking.
Westwood, consistent for much of the event, collapsed under the pressure here. Not so for Thomas, who set up his victory here. By the end, he cleared a one-shot victory over Westwood, and two over DeChambeau. As the crowd roared, Thomas was emotionless, until a reporter brought up his late grandfather, who recently passed, and the tears began flowing.
Thomas’ latest victory puts him in rare company historically
Thomas’s emotional win ended up being very personal to him, being his first since losing a great supporter and mentor in his grandfather. For the rest of us, it placed him in the rarefied air next to names that define the sport of golf. This is Thomas’ 14th championship win, and he did it before turning 28.
The only other PGA Tour luminaries to achieve the same should sound familiar. According to Golfweek: Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Johnny Miller. The comparison to Woods in particular lands close to home for Thomas. Woods considers Thomas his closest friend on the PGA Tour. He regularly shares advice with him out of affection, according to Golf.com.
The younger golfer isn’t Tiger’s protégé, however. His own style better matches that of the wave of young golfers like DeChambeau, who focus on building core strength and flexibility to bash out long drives that retain the finesse of their forebears.
Thomas developed his calm-against-all-odds style by navigating a major controversy
Thomas’ win came as a redemptive triumph after a string of adversity. First, as CNN reports, he blurted out an anti-gay slur after a bad cut back in January. It was a par putt attempt that went horribly awry. Emotions are to be expected. But Thomas went well beyond the line, and recognized it immediately, calling the incident “inexcusable.” It was the first real round of bad press in his career so far, and he’s been careful to shoulder the blame in a direct way.
A month later the loss of his grandfather, the reason he took up golf, shattered him. It led to a terrible performance at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Once more, failed putts were a problem. His calm demeanor didn’t carry over to his game at all.
The fruits of his new focus wouldn’t bear until the Players Championship. Putting remained a problem, but Thomas’ behavior was not. Even as the crowd erupted with joy after he struggled past a particularly difficult hole, he was unmoved. This new version of Thomas acts differently. He plays the game differently, not letting his weaknesses overwhelm him. And now he stands alongside his pal Woods, as one of the most accomplished golfers to win so many times before hitting 28.