<
>

Justin Thomas has had success on the PGA Tour but he is ready to be famous

play
Thomas is grateful The Masters is rescheduled (1:20)

Justin Thomas says he's thankful but also disappointed The Masters is rescheduled and not canceled. (1:20)

The text arrived about 10 p.m. It was Thursday, March 12, and Justin Thomas was getting ready to go to bed at the house he was sharing with Rickie Fowler at The Players Championship near Jacksonville. Thomas looked at his phone. Normally, the PGA Tour's mass texting service sends automated messages to players with little reminders: a tee time, a tournament entry deadline. Swipe and move on. But this time was different: The Players and the next three weeks of tournaments were being canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thomas had big plans for this season. A win already in Hawaii, the Florida swing into the Masters, a summer of majors and the Olympics in Japan. His confidence was billowing. This year felt like it could be -- like it should be -- something special.

And then, suddenly, there was only smoke. Thomas dialed Fowler, who was in the bedroom upstairs.

"What do we do?"

Fowler groaned. "About what?" He was nearly asleep.

"The tournament's canceled," Thomas said, and there was silence. "Hang on," Fowler said, and a moment later he was at Thomas' door holding two beers.

They looked at each other for a minute. Then looked at their phones. Then stared into space as they tried to figure out what comes next.


THE MASTERS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THIS WEEK. The birds. The grass. The flowers. The pictures. When I think of golf, I see the 12th at Augusta National in my mind's eye.

But the Masters isn't happening, of course, and it's OK to be sad about that. Human beings are creatures of depth and context -- it is entirely possible to be worried about a global pandemic and still disappointed that the best golf tournament of the year has been postponed. Thomas is relieved that his family and friends are, to this point, safe. And he is also seriously disappointed not to be in Augusta.

"I'm sad," he says. "It's basically everyone's favorite event of the year. I know that's not important, but it still sucks."

Thomas was ready to turn things around. A year ago, he was at Jordan Spieth's rental house on the Sunday night after the Masters. Everyone was unwinding. "Someone had spilled water, or something else, in the garage," he remembers. He slipped, put his hand down to catch himself and immediately felt pain shooting up his wrist. The injury was initially misdiagnosed, and it took Thomas nearly two months before he could play again.

"It was brutal," he says, and even more so because it was his last memory of the Masters.

This spring, Thomas has done more than just prepare for the Masters physically. When I spent a few days with him at his home in Jupiter, Florida, last month, we talked a lot about how the majors have been an outlier for him in a career that has been, by any other measure, excellent. Thomas won the 2017 PGA Championship, has won the FedEx Cup and has shot a 59. He's held the No. 1 ranking in the world and been a critical cog for the United States in Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups. But in 17 career majors, including four Masters, he has just three top-10 finishes.

While most professional athletes are loathe to admit a mental hang-up, Thomas has never believed in sugarcoating. And he absolutely thinks his mind has gotten in the way.

"I think I maybe over-prepped for them a little, if I'm being truthful," he says. "Obviously it's easier to say, treat it like another event, but it's not, you know? It's just not. It's the Masters, and I want to win that tournament more than anything."

Once he was able to admit that to himself, it was freeing, allowing him to come up with a new approach. He was going to be more aggressive this year at Augusta, not worry so much about big numbers and focus on low ones. He was going to stop treating the Masters like it was made of glass.

"The first few years [Thomas] was on tour, I think he was a little in Jordan's shadow, but now, quite frankly, he's turned into a better player than what Jordan is and I think he's only going to keep rising." Rory McIlroy

How many times had he shot a 71 or 72 on Thursday at Augusta because he was afraid of going after a 67? How many times had he forced himself to chase the race instead of getting toward the front? No more. If he had an 8-iron approach shot, he was going to shoot at the pin.

"I think I'm very patient at majors," Thomas says, "but I think maybe at Augusta, I was too patient. And that's going to change."


THESE DAYS, THOMAS HASN'T BEEN PLAYING MUCH GOLF. He has had a few casual rounds with friends -- he played a left-handed challenge with Fowler a few weeks back -- but has felt "zero interest" in grinding through practice when he knows tournament golf is still a long way off. He plays games and watches TV with his girlfriend, Jillian Wisniewski, who is also trying to work remotely. Sometimes he goes to use the gym at Fowler's house, which is just down the street. And sometimes he checks in with Tiger Woods.

Thomas and Woods became close in 2017, after Thomas reached out to offer support and a friendly hang while Woods recovered from injuries. Since then, Thomas has become a regular in Woods's inner circle and developed friendships with Woods' girlfriend, Erica Herman, as well as Woods' two kids -- all of which he readily admits can feel surreal at times because he grew up idolizing Tiger (Thomas will be 27 this month; Woods is 44).

"Honestly, there are still times like that or times when I look at phone and Tiger texts me that I'm like, 'Is this real?' I'm still not totally sure how it happened." Justin Thomas on his friendship with Tiger Woods

Despite the age gap, their relationship is powered by, among other things, an abiding affection for the intricacies of shot-making -- Thomas used a dead-hands chipping style that he learned from Woods to help win a tournament earlier this year -- as well as a mutual admiration for good-natured trash talking.

This love of poking fun has trickled down from Woods to his 10-year-old son, Charlie. When Thomas walked into the Augusta National grill as Woods' family watched Woods play the final round at last year's Masters, Charlie looked over and called out, "Hey, it's the guy who can't putt!" Thomas could only shake his head.

He did have his revenge, though. Months later, when Woods, Charlie and Thomas spent an evening at Woods's house with a nine-hole putting contest on Woods' green, Charlie began crowing when he was beating both players after eight holes. "The best in the world? And I'm winning?" Charlie shouted, dancing around. But he opened the door a crack with a three-putt on the last, and Thomas coolly drained a 15-footer to win. The celebration, Thomas says, involved "some serious chirping" as Charlie's father cackled.

"Honestly, there are still times like that or times when I look at phone and Tiger texts me that I'm like, 'Is this real?'" Thomas says. "I'm still not totally sure how it happened."

The thing is, Woods isn't Thomas's only uber-famous friend. Justin Timberlake once pantomimed a putt onstage when he saw Thomas at one of his concerts. At tournaments in Los Angeles, Thomas will sometimes stay with Mark Wahlberg, who also hearts quite a high number of Thomas's Instagram posts. For their second date, Thomas invited Wisniewski to join him on a couples weekend in the Bahamas with Michael Jordan (Thomas met Jordan as a teenager, and they became closer once he moved to Jupiter, where Jordan also has a house.)

As another golfer, Harold Varner III, puts it, "basically, if you think of a celebrity, JT probably knows them." While Thomas generally avoids name-dropping, it sometimes feels unavoidable. When he describes his feelings for Wisniewski, for example, he mentions a piece of advice he got from a friend who told him the best thing a person can do is "find the people who bring out the best in you" and keep them as close as possible.

It was a nice thought, and off-handedly, I ask, who was the friend? Thomas smiles a little sheepishly: "Tom Brady."

Still, there should be no mistake: Thomas is not simply into collecting coveted phone numbers. He is interested in real relationships and thinks of his friends as, well, friends, regardless of how famous they might be.

In his man cave above the garage, for instance, he has a slew of framed jerseys from sports stars but explains that he only puts up jerseys from people he knows well enough that they would feel comfortable writing him a genuine message. A closer look bears him out: Here's Andre Iguodala writing, "To J.T. -- Best wishes on future majors (No pressure!)" and there's Aaron Rodgers sending along the jersey from Green Bay's 2014 playoff win over the Giants. "JT -- if winning didn't matter, they wouldn't keep score. ... Game recognize game. Respect," Rodgers scrawled.

Bud Cauley, a former roommate who, like Thomas, played college golf at Alabama, says his theory about Thomas's eclectic list of friends is no more complicated than this: Thomas has a simple, laid-back, rank-and-file personality that appeals to people generally (and specifically to people who also would like to someday drive the ball 300 yards themselves).

"Look, dressing like a pylon? That's a risk and he loved it and it worked. He can just go someplace random and people are like, 'Oh, that's Rickie Fowler' and you know what? I do think, yeah, that would be really cool if it was me." Justin Thomas on Rickie Fowler

Nick Saban, who helped Alabama's golf coach recruit Thomas and is an avid golfer himself, says of Thomas, "He's gracious, he's a good guy, he doesn't act outside of himself and he works hard." Then, referring to his wife, Saban tells me, "Let me put it this way: Even Miss Terri, she never, ever watches golf on TV. But if Justin is playing, she wants to watch it. Because she loves him."

When I ask Thomas about his celebrity friends, he largely demurs, shrugging and saying he likes to get to know people he finds interesting. But it also quickly becomes clear there is an aspirational -- or at least motivational -- component to it as well. Thomas has no interest in simply riding shotgun with superstars; he wants to be a superstar, wants to be known, as he says, "even by some Joe Schmoe in England." More than any athlete I've ever met, Thomas was the most open about his desire for fame, as well as his admiration for those around him who have it.

There is no obfuscating: He wants it, and he is not afraid to say it. Fowler, who has won fewer tournaments than Thomas (and zero majors), is nonetheless stopped by fans everywhere, Thomas says, because he has built a considerable brand through his colorful wardrobe and numerous commercials. "Look, dressing like a pylon? That's a risk and he loved it and it worked," Thomas says of Fowler's famous all-orange outfit. "He can just go someplace random and people are like, 'Oh, that's Rickie Fowler' and you know what? I do think, yeah, that would be really cool if it was me."

With Spieth, who has struggled badly the past year and half but will forever be remembered for winning three majors from 2015-17, Thomas was even more reflective.

"It was like I was pissed, like I was mad about something," he said. "I'd be like, 'God, Jordan won another major?' And Jordan is one of my best friends. I love Jordan, but that's how I felt. And it was real. And finally I was just like, 'You're not pissed -- you're just jealous.' That's all it is. I think it helped when I finally realized that, it was a big thing for me. Because I just decided, if I'm jealous, it's in my hands. I shouldn't pass that off to anyone else."


THE LARGER QUESTION -- WHY DOES THOMAS WANT FAME? -- IS TRICKIER. One afternoon last month, as we drive to one of Thomas's workout sessions, he idles at a red light and says, "Lately, I've been feeling like I wish I was smarter. I want to know about more things, I want to be able to talk to people more in depth about things in the world." A few months ago, he says, he tried learning Spanish, and has started to read more books instead of just looking at his phone all the time.

It was a thoughtful, genuine reflection, the kind common for those closer to 30 than 20. You can draw a line between it and Thomas's realizations about fame, too: No longer an up-and-comer but also not quite a veteran, Thomas is -- understandably -- beginning to wonder more and more about his own identity.

It isn't just about golf, either. When I ask him what he does well away from the course, he hesitates. He can list the skills of others, no problem. Keith Mitchell knows everything about cars, and Thomas actually asked him to design his custom Mercedes with the Crimson Tide-red interior. Fowler is a handyman, and so into DIY work that he gave Thomas an air compressor as a housewarming present. When I ask Fowler for the thinking behind that gift, he looks at me helpfully. "It's just an important tool -- he can blow out the garage if needs to, as well as handle standard maintenance as far as air pressure on cars." (Thomas has barely used it.)

"I'd be like, 'God, Jordan won another major?' And Jordan is one of my best friends. I love Jordan but that's how I felt. And it was real. And finally I was just like, 'You're not pissed -- you're just jealous.' That's all it is. I think it helped when I finally realized that, it was a big thing for me. Because I just decided, if I'm jealous, it's in my hands." Justin Thomas

Defining his own skills, though, is harder for Thomas. He isn't a fitness freak like Brooks Koepka, and his eyes start rolling the moment the conversation comes around to the science of golf. "I'm the farthest thing from Bryson [Dechambeau]," Thomas says. When I ask if he thinks Dechambeau's physics-professor image is genuine, he shrugs and adds, "I don't think so. I'm not even sure he himself knows what he's saying sometimes. But either way, that's not me."

What is then? The personal side of Thomas's life is slowly coming into focus, as he has moved in with Wisniewski, and they've recently gotten a labradoodle puppy, Franklin -- two developments which have reduced, although not entirely eliminated, the frequency of Thomas' boys trips and the late, long nights with buddies in the man cave.

"Being around Jill just makes me happy," he says.

But the rest of Thomas' self is trickier. And that is why it sometimes feels like the pressure on his golf performances will only grow. Think about it: Most well-known golfers have something that defines them -- both to themselves and to the public. Spieth is the wunderkind, Koepka is the muscle-bound assassin, Dustin Johnson is the giant who hits the ball for miles, Dechambeau is the scientist, Fowler is the telegenic one.

If Thomas isn't interested in cultivating some type of specific public image to help achieve the fame he wants, and if he is determined to be known for much more than the company he keeps, then all that is left is to be a sociable, thoughtful, personable guy who bludgeons his way into legend with win after win after win.

Can he do it? Those who have seen him win 12 tournaments and nearly $35 million in prize money in six-plus years, can definitely see it.

"The first few years he was on tour, I think he was a little in Jordan's shadow," Rory McIlroy says when I ask him about Thomas, "but now, quite frankly, he's turned into a better player than what Jordan is, and I think he's only going to keep rising."

McIlroy ticks off Thomas's strengths: his iron play, his wedges, his creativity. He even points out he and Thomas are both Tauruses -- "I know it's weird I know that" -- which generally comes with a grittiness and stubbornness that makes for "a great competitor."

"Listen, he's a hell of a player, and he's going to be a hell of a player for the next 20 years," McIlroy says. "I think everyone out here knows that."


AND YET, OF COURSE, THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES. Earlier this year, Thomas was on the phone with Spieth, and the conversation turned to their schedules. Thomas asked Spieth if he was planning to play in a big tournament in Mexico a few weeks down the line and was startled when Spieth told him he wasn't sure because he wasn't ranked high enough to automatically enter it.

"It just hit me hard," Thomas says. "Two years ago, Jordan was two or three in the world and now he's not in Mexico? I hate it for him, and I think he's going to be amazing again, but it just reminded me how quickly it can turn. We don't know how long anything lasts in golf."

In some ways, it's that feeling that drove Thomas' excitement about this year's Masters, and this season in general. It felt like he had made it through his injury, made it through the mental hurdles he needed, found stability in his personal life and was now ready to climb the ladder as high as it could go.

Now, like all of us, he's shut down, waiting, losing time he can never get back.

Sweating on the other end of a FaceTime call after having just finished a workout, Thomas shakes his head. It isn't his way, he says, to dwell and worry right now. If nothing else, he's realizing there is so much he can't control. "I don't think I'd ever been more positive about going to the Masters," he says, and so whenever he actually does get to return to Augusta National, he has no reason to believe he will feel differently.

"I know I'll be ready" he says. "And whenever we come back, I feel like I'm going to make some noise."