PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Alabama head football coach Nick Saban knows a thing or two about defending a title, having won seven national championships.
So when he spoke recently about making a successful defense, Justin Thomas listened. What Thomas heard may come as a surprise to many, but the world No. 8 and devoted member of the Roll Tide family loved the message.
Saban said you don’t defend a title, so go out, have fun and just try to win again.
“It’s so true,” Thomas said Tuesday at TPC Sawgrass as he began preparations to defend his 2021 Players Championship title. “I don’t have to defend anything. The PGA Tour isn’t going to come to my living room and take my Players Championship trophy from 2021 from me after this week. That’s mine forever.
“I’m just going to go try to win it again. Have fun. That’s all I’m going to try to do. I am very glad that he said that because it definitely resonated well with me.”
Heading into last year’s Players, Thomas wasn’t having much fun.
He was caught up in a vortex of turmoil after he uttered a homophobic slur in the third round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January, immediately apologized and did so on many occasions, but lost one sponsor and had another publicly scold him.
Then his grandfather passed.
Then Tiger Woods, a friend and mentor, was in a serous car accident.
“It’s been a crappy two months,” Thomas said last year. “It took a lot out of me mentally. It tested me mentally, physically, emotionally, and I’m very proud of myself for getting it done.”
What Thomas did to get it done was stay patient through two so-so rounds and shoot 64-68 on the weekend to topple the best field in golf by one shot. While he hasn’t won since, he’s feeling much better than last year at this time as he comes into this week off a sixth-place finish in the Genesis Invitational, a tie for eighth in the WM Phoenix Open, a tie for 20th in the Farmers Insurance Open and a tie for fifth in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
“My game is in a lot better place. I’m a lot more confident. I’m in a better place mentally. I just feel a lot better about everything,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean anything great is going to happen, but that’s the fun and miserable thing about this game that I’ve decided to play.
“I feel a lot better about things at this time this year than last year.”
What the pros play: Justin Thomas
That feeling extends outside the gallery ropes. The 2017 FedEx Cup champion and winner of 14 PGA Tour titles, including the 2017 PGA, announced Monday his new relationship as an ambassador for Greyson Clothiers. Ralph Lauren ended its relationship with Thomas in January 2021.
And Thomas is engaged to longtime girlfriend, Jillian Wisniewski.
He also has a new locker in the clubhouse. Thomas joked that he now has the muscle memory to make sure he takes a left to the Champions Locker Room instead of going right to the regular locker room.
“A nice adjustment that I’ll be able to make going forward,” he said.
Thomas knows he has his hands full this week. Only four of the top-50 players in the world aren’t in the tournament. And the Players hasn’t had a back-to-back winner heading into their 40th anniversary on the Stadium Course this year.
“I’ve been playing really well. I’ve been working really hard and feel like some really good things are coming but just need to stay patient,” he said. “I just kind of haven’t gone on any of those runs the last three tournaments that I feel like I usually do in tournaments, and I think that was the difference of honestly not winning the tournaments and finishing where I did.
“Just got to keep staying patient, keep working hard and letting good things happen.”
Worked last year.