Bryant tributes abound at Waste Management Phoenix Open
January 30, 2020
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
- Justin Thomas sported Kobe Bryant's high school jersey on the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
To Justin Thomas, it just seemed like the least he could do.
In both the pro-am on Wednesday and then again today in the opening round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Thomas played the iconic par-3 16th stadium hole at TPC Scottsdale wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey.
This one wasn’t the No. 8 or 24 from Bryant’s incredible NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers, but rather the No. 33 from his time at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia. Just owning the jersey showed Thomas has long been a fan of the man lost to the world in tragic circumstances last Sunday.
Thomas admitted it was the first time he’d cried for a man he’d never met when news of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other people that were killed in a tragic helicopter accident broke. It was a moment that will have a lasting effect on Thomas and, perhaps, all of the PGA TOUR family.
Thomas was already sporting Bryant tributes on his wedges, stamping “Mamba Mentality”, “Kobe Bean Bryant”, “Black Mamba” and “81 points” on them. His putter cover, and that of other TOUR players this week, is purple and gold and has "RIP Kobe" and "RIP Gigi" written on it.
“I've always been a huge fan of his. I've always loved watching him play, just loved hearing about his work ethic and stuff that he did on and off the court and how he just always worked harder than everybody else," Thomas said. It's probably the reason… I mean, obviously, he's freakishly talented… but why he was better than everybody else because he was going to work harder to get there and just kind of will himself to be a winner. That's something that I hope to do when I'm out there playing, when I have a chance to win the tournament, I want to have that Mamba mentality, if you will, to try to close it out.”
When Thomas walked onto the 16th and put on the jersey, the full house was certainly appreciative of the action. In a house where commotion and booing is common, the fans celebrated the gesture in fine spirit. He was not the only one. Several stars had their own homages.
Some included Max Homa and Tony Finau, who also wore Bryant jerseys. Chants of “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe” filled the air as they noticed Finau also had purple and gold shoes. It continued with Bud Cauley and Gary Woodland donning their Scotty Cameron putter covers, along with Bryson DeChambeau, who had written '8' and '24' on his shoes. TaylorMade staffers also had 24 on their golf balls.
Finau was on course last Sunday at the Farmers Insurance Open when the news broke. He and fellow Nike athlete Tiger Woods were both clearly emotional when they were told. Finau has long made it known he was a Bryant fan. He couldn’t help but return to the feelings he felt when he lost his own mother in a tragic car accident in 2011. Finau’s manager, another huge Lakers fan, drove from Los Angeles to San Diego when the news broke to be there for Finau as he finished.
“That will probably give you an idea of how much an impact Kobe was in my life just as a sports junkie. I'm a huge fan of basketball, the NBA and the Lakers, and in huge part because of Kobe Bryant,” Finau said last Sunday.
“He was a star… His work ethic is something that will be talked about, that's what his legacy is. I remember actually wearing his shoes out here in 2016 just giving him props for the Mamba mentality and kind of what he taught a lot of athletes in pursuing your dreams. His legacy for sure is one of hard work and commitment to your craft. That's Kobe Bryant.”
Finau vowed to try to live up to the work ethic he so admired in Bryant.
“The way to live a life that respects Kobe and that he would respect is one to have the Mamba mentality,” he continued. “Maybe that's something that I need, work even harder at your craft and have more love for your craft and maybe that's something that we all need as athletes, to have that Mamba mentality.”
The accident was also a stark reminder of how precious, and sometimes fleeting, life can be. Gary Woodland certainly took that message from the terrible news. Woodland was a college basketball player before golf became his full focus, and as such, was intimately in tune with Bryant’s career on the court. He also enjoys the Mamba mentality and can recite most of Bryant’s records and stats. But it is Bryant’s life after the NBA that has Woodland most in awe.
Bryant, the father of four girls, was the man Woodland was keeping tabs on. He has some experience in losing a child, like Vanessa Bryant is facing now. Woodland’s two-year-old son Jaxson was due to be one of twins before Gary and his wife Gabby lost the other baby during a troubled pregnancy. Since then, they have welcomed twin girls into the family, born last year.
Woodland was so affected by the news that he took Jaxson to the course for the first time while he practiced earlier this week. He was all of a sudden mindful of creating memories with his growing toddler and making every moment count.
“The biggest tribute is trying to imitate Kobe in the way to be a father like he was and work hard every day because you never know when it's taken away from you, so you can't take any day for granted on and off the golf course,” Woodland said pre-tournament.
“When you see him with his children, he looked like he was happy, he was smiling all the time, laughing, when he was coaching her. That's the love and energy that I want to have and it makes me sad that him and his daughter and seven other people's lives were taken away way too soon. I want to be there for my kids and not have to miss anything, because you never know.”
What we do know is we all need to treat life like the gift it is because the reminders will keep coming. Bryant wouldn’t want it any other way.