SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Last night, Justin Thomas spoke with the leadership of his equipment sponsor, Titleist, who is sticking by him despite his use of a homophobic slur during the third round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January. The end result? The company invited him to participate in its diversity and inclusion training.
“It’s stuff like that to where just like they’re wanting themselves to get better, they are offering me if I want to be a part of that, too,” Thomas said. “It’s stuff like that that kind of has really kept me upbeat and kept me in a great mood and kept me very optimistic about the growth that I can have.”
But there has been plenty of fallout from Thomas’s poor word choice. Clothing company Ralph Lauren cut ties with Thomas and Citi denounced his language and announced via an Instagram post that he will be required to donate a “meaningful portion” of his deal to LBGTQ causes.
Thomas returned to action last week wearing brand-less apparel at the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship and missed the cut. He makes his seventh start of the 2020-21 PGA Tour season this week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, which has traditionally been a happy hunting ground for Thomas. The question remains, how will being humbled in a moment that clashed sharply with his previously spotless public image impact his play between the ropes?
“When you take a wolf and you humble him that wolf is never the same type of hunter again,” said Golf Channel analyst Arron Oberholser. “I think JT is one of those guys who truly has a conscious, has truly been affected by this and it could take a while for him to really get his edge back. I think his edge has been taken away to a certain extent. He might be able to get back there, but it’s going to take a lot of work.”
Thomas may be able to tap into his close friendship with Tiger Woods, who endured an even more public humiliation more than a decade ago and returned to World No. 1 as well as winning the Masters in 2019 for his 15th major championship, for advice on how to grow from the experience.
“Tiger had to embrace a completely new way of thinking about the world and he did and he came back and he did it a different way with a bad back and a different outlook,” Oberholser said. “JT has tons of runway to be able to do the same thing.”
While acknowledging that it’s a small sample size, Oberholser noted that Thomas had never finished worse than ninth in his three previous overseas non-Tour sanctioned tournaments before missing the cut in Abu Dhabi.
“Do you think coming off a third (at Sentry Tournament of Champions) if things hadn’t happened in Hawaii, would he have missed the cut at Abu Dhabi? Not a chance in hell. I’m absolutely convinced. This has affected him big time,” Oberholser said.
Thomas doesn’t disagree.
“Clearly it’s been a distraction,” he said. “I mean, I think that kind of speaks for itself. But the biggest thing that I’ve learned from it is that I made a mistake and that I have a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow from it, just like I do in my golf game, just like I do in my everyday life. This is a part of my everyday life, and I have the opportunity to try to turn this into a positive and learn and grow from it as much as I possibly can.”
On paper, TPC Scottsdale would seem like a safe landing place for Thomas to try to get back on track this week. He’s finished third the past two years at the Phoenix Open and his high ball flight, ability to maneuver it both ways and elite iron play should make him a perennial favorite at a course that rewards all three of those skills.
“I love watching him play when he gets going,” said tournament defending champion Webb Simpson. “I feel like he actually gets more comfortable and more excited to play when he’s 7-, 8-under. There’s like a hyper focus, and I saw that in Tiger over the years.”
Thomas has long been a fan of the Tom Weiskopf-Jay Morrish layout. He’s making his seventh consecutive start here in the Valley of the Sun.
“I feel like if you really have control of your ball you can go around here with very minimal mistakes and make a lot of birdies, but at the same time it is a place that if you’re not playing well, it can expose you, and I think that’s why I’ve had a little bit of both,” he said.
If one club has held Thomas back from tasting victory in the desert, it likely has been his driver.
“When he gets nervous or he gets going bad, he hits a pull,” Oberholser said, citing Thomas’s reluctance to hit driver at No. 14, a drivable par-4 at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort, home of the Sentry Tournament of Champions. “Everyone to a man hit driver off the tee while JT hit iron or 3-wood and bunted it every day and used his wedge. Why? Because I don’t think he trusts the driver fully when trouble is on the left. It’s a scary shot for him. And what’s on the left coming down the stretch in Phoenix?”
Water galore. When Thomas was asked about if the trouble on the left side of many of the back nine holes had made it difficult for him to win at TPC Scottsdale, he said, “I didn’t until you just brought it up, so now I’m thinking about it.”
He added: “But I do love the golf course. I think and hope it really is a place that I’ll win multiple times in my career. I would like to get it out of the way soon so I can stop guessing and hoping.”