Photo Courtesy of The New York Times
By Chris Carey
On Sunday, 27-year-old Justin Thomas held off 47-year-old European Tour veteran Lee Westwood in order to hoist the 24k gold vermeil trophy and collect his $2.7 million winner’s check. This is Thomas’ first victory at The Players, and his fourteenth professional win. The former world number-one joined the ranks of Tiger Woods, Johnny Miller, and Jack Nicklaus in achieving that fourteenth win before turning 28 years old.
The tournament itself greatly challenged Thomas’ ability to make big moves up the leaderboard. On Friday, with only three holes remaining to fall above the cut line of even par, Thomas birdied the Par 5 16th and Par 4 18th to just barely skate by with a 36-hole score of (-1). At that point, Lee Westwood, who does not count a major championship or a Players as one of his 44 professional wins, held the 36 hole lead at (-9), a full 8 strokes better than Thomas.
As Sunday’s play began, Westwood and Bryson DeChambeau, fresh off of his victory at the prior week’s Arnold Palmer Bay Hill Invitational, were in the final pairing, at (-13) and (-11) respectively. Westwood would finish the day with an even par 72 and an aggregate 13 under par, finishing one behind Justin Thomas whose third round 64 and final round 68 solidified his place in the champions circle.
Thomas, who has faced media backlash over a homophobic slur he frustratedly said after missing a short par putt earlier this year, was visibly shaken and humbled by his victory. Although he had immediately apologized following the round, Thomas’ sponsor Ralph Lauren dropped him, and he enrolled in an individual training program to “become a better person.”
Additionally, Thomas’ grandfather, Paul Thomas, who was a PGA Professional as well, passed away last month. His passion for the game and his pride in his grandson were no secret, and the relationship between the two has been an object of media attention through Justin’s career.
Asked in his post-round Sunday interview about what this victory means in the context of his grandfather’s passing, Thomas, choked up, said “I wish I could talk to him, but it was a sign he was watching.”
After the interview, he jokingly remarked through his tears, “Why’d you have to do that to me man?’
Waiting at the 18th green were Thomas’ parents. Mike Thomas, his father and coach, said “I kept telling everyone on my team and my family that I’m ready for something good to happen this year.”
Like his son, Mike Thomas was visibly shaken at the trophy presentation ceremony. The father-son team are exceptionally close, and Mike has served as Justin’s caddie at times, as well as his swing coach and playing partner at others.
Many in the golf world hope that this victory signifies Justin’s return to prominence following his profuse and sincere apologies, as well as the death of his beloved grandfather early this year. With the Masters Tournament to be played from April 8 to April 11, many consider Thomas an early favorite, along with the runners up Westwood and DeChambeau.