Photo: Lynne Sladky / Associated Press
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — He had become the world’s top-ranked golfer only last month and suddenly he isn’t. Justin Thomas is crushed.
Actually, he isn’t crushed at all.
“I saw something hysterical yesterday on social media,” Thomas said Tuesday, fewer than 48 hours before teeing off with Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson in the 118th U.S. Open’s marquee threesome. “You know how when teams or players go on long runs, it’s the last time this happened?
“I’m biased but often a scenario is last time Tennessee beat Alabama in football, iPhones weren’t born yet. Well, the last time I wasn’t No. 1 in the world, Ovechkin didn’t have a Stanley Cup and Rickie wasn’t engaged.”
Alexander Ovechkin has had so much fun the past week since the Washington Capitals won, we almost expect to see him, Stanley Cup aloft, to go streaking across the 18th green at Shinnecock Hills. Thomas, meanwhile, was there with the camera when Rickie Fowler got down on one knee and proposed to Allison Stoke on a Long Island beach last weekend. The proof is on Instagram.
The 25-year-old from Louisville is a compelling study. Thomas has become one of the best golfers on the planet without being driven by the golfer’s obsession to perfect every swing. He recently told Sports Illustrated he never remembered playing poorly because he was nervous, and that he drives Tiger Woods nuts because he doesn’t know anything about his clubs. He counts Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, Tom Brady, Kid Rock and Justin Timberlake among golfing buddies, yet he doesn’t act like a celebrity.
Thomas, one of the headliners at a stacked Travelers Championship next week, doesn’t have to act like No. 1 to be No. 1.
Fowler, the PGA Tour’s most eligible bachelor emeritus, may not realize it, but he can thank Thomas for the $111,020 he won at the 2013 Travelers. The cut line was low 70 players plus ties, but people forget that’s 70 pros plus ties. Thomas was still playing as an amateur, so a dozen others, including his bud, slipped in. Fowler rallied to finish 13th.
“I remember we were talking at some event to Patrick Cantlay and his family, who we gave an exemption to (in 2011),” Travelers tournament director Nathan Grube said. “Justin was there. He was still in high school or a freshman at Alabama. He goes, ‘I want to play in your tournament someday.’
“I go, ‘That’s great. We’d love to have you. Write in for an exemption.’ Kind of joking around. He was a nice kid. After his first year at Alabama, we saw he was definitely going to be special. We gave him an exemption. It has been great to watch his journey.”
So here Thomas was as a pro at the 2016 Travelers. Only four players in the 66-year history of the event have shot better than the 62 he carded in the final round. It also is the Travelers’ great forgotten round. Only hours earlier Jim Furyk became the toast of the golf world with a PGA Tour-record 58.
“It was crazy,” Grube said. “I saw him in the clubhouse afterward and said. ‘I’m so sorry. We’ve never had a 62 overshadowed like that before. Great round.’ He goes, ‘Thanks, man.’
“He’s such a good kid, so gracious. He comes from a good family. You can see it in how he interacts with people. He was in the Walker Cup, in the middle of the match, trying to help one of his buddies find a tee shot at 18. He saw me in the gallery, walks over, and goes, ‘Hey, what are you doing out here?’ ”
Unassuming works for Thomas. As a freshman at Alabama, he won the Haskins Award as college player of the year. He led Alabama to the national title as a sophomore. In 2017, won the PGA Championship, the FedExCup PGA Tour player of the year and nearly $10 million. He won the Honda Classic this year, climbed to No. 1 on May 13 and that lasted until Johnston won St. Jude on Sunday holing out with an eagle.
Asked how he was similar to D.J., the world’s new No. 2 golfer smiled.
“We both hit it kind of far,” Thomas said. “I mean, our golf flights are different. We have different putting strokes. We have different swings. Totally different body types. He’s much more athletic than I am. He’s more flexible. He’s stronger. He has won more times. We have different personalities. We’re different ages. He has a family. I don’t. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.”
A total of 81 golfers have won at least two majors, while 138, including Thomas and Johnson, have won one. That’s why when he was asked about Tiger and Phil Mickelson, he called them “Cadillacs.”
No Cadillac for Tiger this week. Staying on the water nearby in his swanky yacht means not fretting about Long Island traffic jams that could threaten tee times, which led to Thomas telling a long story how he almost missed a tee time at the U.S. Amateur.
“Staying on the dinghy helps,” Woods said.
You win 14 majors, Thomas figures, you deserve the dinghy.
“I mean absolutely no disrespect to the guys who have won one, myself included,” Thomas said, “but it’s a lot easier to get hot one week than it is to do it again and win another major. I want another sooner than later.”
His dad, Mike, a local golf pro who taught Justin how to play without turning him into an obsessed lunatic, told Sports Illustrated that a crucial thing he saw in his son was that he wasn’t afraid to succeed. The two never had a full session on the range until Justin was deep into high school. This is a kid who shot a 65 at the Wyndham Championship when he was only 16, the third-youngest player in PGA Tour history to make a cut. This is a guy who has a new driver in his bag this week, shrugs and says it feels right, but never has had a full swing overhaul.
“The fondest memory that I have is just seeing my dad off the 18th green at the PGA last year and giving him a hug,” Thomas said. “It’s still the only video that gets me a little choked up every time I see it. We worked at it since I was 5 or 6, before I ever knew we were working. I was just having fun.
“I would like to replace that with a memory in about six days.”
On Father’s Day.
Where he could head to Connecticut as a multiple major champion and the No. 1 player in the world.