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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Justin Thomas has never made an excuse for the ugly, homophobic slur he muttered earlier this year at the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
The Jupiter resident apologized, called his actions “humiliating” and “embarrassing” and even said he understood why he was dropped by some sponsors, including Ralph Lauren.
One month after a boom mic caught Thomas uttering the slur about himself as he missed a par putt, Thomas’ 89-year-old grandfather, Paul Thomas, died.
It has all had an impact on the 27-year-old’s game.
“I’m doing OK, I have definitely been better,” Thomas said this week, before a 1-under 71 Thursday in the first round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
“But at the same time, it’s a good opportunity for me to try to grow and learn and get stronger because of it. I think it’s kind of put a lot of things in perspective and unfortunately for my golf, it’s taken a toll on that a little bit. I’m not playing as well as I’d like.”
Thomas has been through an emotional grinder this year, of course, part of that his own doing. Since using the slur, he has missed the cut at the HSBC Championship in Abu Dhabi and Genesis Invitational and tied for 13th at the Phoenix Open and tied for 15th at WGC-Workday Championship. Yet, he has hung onto his No. 3 world ranking.
It was on the Sunday of the Phoenix Open when Thomas learned his grandfather had died. He shot a 72 that day, after a third-round 64.
The challenge Thursday was navigating the Stadium Course when Thomas said his driving was “very, very mediocre,” and one in which several golfers pointed out the difficult pin placements for a Thursday.
Still, his 71 equals his best score to par in an opening round since the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That, despite putting his tee shot on the par-3, 17th in the water and settling for a double-bogey. (It could have been worse, Byeong Hun An carded an 11 after splashing four shots).
Thomas shot a 38 on the back nine (his front nine on Thursday) before getting under par with birdies on the second, fourth and ninth holes. He reached the green in two on the par-5 No. 2 and left himself with putts inside 4-feet for birdie on No. 4 and No. 9.
“It’s really just about getting the ball in play,” Thomas said. “Although, I for some reason have struggled starting off that back nine in the past, I know I played that front nine well before, so just kind of stay patient and hope you get on one of those runs.”
Thomas’ tee shot at No. 17 bounced past the pin and off the back of the green. He nearly did it again on his second tee shot but the ball stopped on the fringe, about 15 feet from the pin.
Thomas said the iconic island green was playing much shorter than 143 yards.
“That green is substantially firmer than the rest of them,” he said. “It always is a little bit firmer but especially up there on top, where you have the gradual upslope that you know if you land it into it, as soft as it is, it’s going to rip back.
“But then you want to land it up top with the helping breeze you get it up in the air or a little bit of adrenaline with fans out here now, you can land it pin high and one hop in the water like I did.”
Thomas believes he’s “getting closer,” but at No. 3 in the world how far can he be? He admits to still getting more emotional on the course than he would like.
“I just am having still some thoughts in my head that I don’t usually have when I’m playing well,” he said. “It’s just … not anger, but it’s just like you just want to like yell.
“This game can be so hard like that and grueling. It’s been a rough couple months, but it feels like an eternity, so it’s just really about realizing that I can’t control what I can’t control, I can only do something about what I can and that’s my mentality and how well I can play.”