Thomas collects emotional victory at WGC-Bridgestone InvitationalWins in front of grandparents, eliciting tearful embrace behind 18th green
August 06, 2018
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Justin Thomas' emotional win at WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
AKRON, Ohio – Phyllis Thomas wore a black visor, a black-and-white checked top, and pushed a walker around Firestone South. Her husband, Paul, was decked out in khaki trousers, a lavender golf shirt and white Titleist cap, and got around the course with a cane.
They were hard to miss behind the 18th green at Firestone South—especially for their grandson, Justin, who hadn’t yet officially won the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational.
“When I had my putt, I kind of marked it and I turned around and I just happened to see my parents, saw my grandma and grandpa,” Thomas said. “I just got a huge knot in my throat and I just had to put my head down. I’ve never gotten like that on the golf course before.”
It was the only time Thomas lost his composure. After starting the day with a three-shot lead over Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter, Thomas remained calm while his nearest pursuers crumbled. He shot a final-round 69 while his seven closest chasers went a combined 17 over par.
Kyle Stanley (68, second, four back) was the only one among them who broke par. Thorborn Olesen and Dustin Johnson shot 64 to tie for third, five behind. Thomas, who won for the third time this season, remains No. 2 in the FedExCup but is just 147 points behind No. 1 Johnson (64, T3). No one has gone back-to-back since the 2007 inception of the FedExCup.
“I’m just in a great place mentally right now,” said Thomas, who now heads to St. Louis for the PGA Championship, where he’ll be defending champion. “I just was so patient and calm all week.”
All week, Phyllis and Paul Thomas loomed large. Justin was aware of where they were at all times, and laughed with reporters about Paul appearing on the driving range as if he’d grown out of the ground. “I have no idea how he got out there,” Thomas said.
Paul, or “PT” to friends and family, was a club pro who played in the 1960 PGA Championship at Firestone South, making the cut. Fast forward nearly 60 years and he was roaming Firestone as a spectator—and eating ice cream and Dr. Pepper for breakfast, Justin said, laughing. Naturally, he added, this caught the attention of some other players’ children, who wondered aloud why they, too, couldn’t eat ice cream and Dr. Pepper for breakfast.
Then there was the text message. As Justin decamped for the French Open in late June, he got a text from Phyllis.
“She said, ‘Dad told me you were on your way to France and that you had been sick all week,’” Thomas said to a roomful of reporters, reading from his phone. “‘Hope you have some good, s___-kicking antibiotics. Hit them good across the pond and be well.’”
Everyone broke up laughing. “That’s grandma right there,” Thomas said.
But if the presence of his grandparents provided love and the occasional funny yarn, it also upped the ante. Thomas, who won for the ninth time, had never won a PGA TOUR event with them in attendance. If he didn’t get it done this week, then when would he?
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“It was a lot—I hate to say pressure, but it was,” he said. “I wanted to win with them here so bad.”
Mike Thomas, Justin’s father/coach, smiled at the embrace between his parents and his son.
“My dad is 86, I believe, and my mom is right behind him,” Mike said. “She was born on February 29, Leap Year, so she claims she’s like 17.
“That was the coolest thing,” he added. “I mean, my parents are old, and they’re not going to be here a lot longer, and for them to get to see that—we had two sheriffs and police driving them around out there today. I don’t know how they got hooked up with those two guys.”
If Phyllis and Paul were instrumental in the celebration, it was Thomas’ smaller golf-related family, made up of himself, Mike and his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, who had to make sure they got there. And with the way the summer had been going, that was no foregone conclusion.
Thomas’ post-FedExCup-winning season had gotten off to a promising start. He’d won THE CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES in his second start last October, and The Honda Classic in February. Close calls at the WGC-Mexico Championship (playoff loss to Phil Mickelson) and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play (4th) signaled he would soon return to the winner’s circle.
What happened, though, was more like a slow fade. Thomas’ wins became top-fives, then top-twenties. Then came his T25 at the U.S. Open, T56 at the Travelers Championship, and, caught in the worst of it at windy, rainy Carnoustie, his missed cut at The Open Championship (69-77).
It was time for a team meeting.
“It was just a let’s-get-back-on-track meeting,” Johnson said. “Nothing serious. Pay attention to what we’re doing, everybody get back on the same page. It was like the summer blues.
“It was very honest,” he added. “We threw it all out there.”
The problem came back to expectations, frustration, and poor decision-making. The most egregious example: Thomas had double-bogeyed the sixth hole at The Open Championsip at Carnoustie last month when he decided to hit driver at the seventh, an impetuous decision that led to a second straight double-bogey. He doubled the eighth hole, too, and shot a second-round 77.
The team meeting was a way to hit the reset button. When Thomas had a poor warm-up session before Friday’s second round, he didn’t panic but gathered himself to shoot 64. He got so hot on the greens his Strokes Gained: Putting (4.857) not only led the field that day, it was the best putting performance of his career.
“His growth has been in patience,” Mike Thomas said.
Fans were filing out the gates after the last WGC-Bridgestone at Firestone; the tournament will move to TPC Southwind next year. Phyllis and Paul had begun the drive back to Columbus, with Phyllis, Justin predicted of his grandmother, fast asleep in the passenger seat. Mike Thomas smiled at this as he sat back in a chair, watching and listening while Justin finished up with the media.
“She’s a beauty,” Justin said of his grandmother.
Back when Justin was 7 or 8, he and his dad used to play gin rummy, and inevitably, the son, furious, would wind up throwing the cards at the father. Mike laughed as he told the story, because he was that kid, too. So was his dad, Paul. Blood is blood, and they all had to learn to chill.
The WGC-Bridgestone showed they all have. Justin Thomas, son, grandson, champion, is not that kid, anymore.
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