The Young Gentleman Of Golf
Justin Thomas took his seat in a private dining room at the TPC Sawgrass in late February, wearing a sharp blue golf shirt, crisp white golf slacks and casual white shoes. The defending champion of The Players Championship extended his hand for a shake and a genuine hello, his southern gentleman demeanor shining through.
It was a gorgeous day at the TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Florida, with amateurs tackling Pete Dye’s infamous monster, a beast with a famously deadly island green par three that devours one golf ball after another. Thomas had conquered the course the previous March for his first Players Championship title, the 14th PGA Tour victory of his career. Now he was back at the scene of the win, and seemed right at home at the PGA Tour’s home, and why wouldn’t he? He definitely owns a piece of it right now, his picture in a row of champions in the lush clubhouse, his play catapulting him to the upper echelons of the game.
Thomas, 28, has come a long way since he first sat down with Cigar Aficionado for an interview in 2017. The great promise of that 2016–17 Tour season—five victories including the 2017 PGA Championship and the Fedex Cup title—had come true years later, including a short spell as the world’s No. 1. He has been consistently ranked as a Top 10 player since 2017, and his career earnings of $46 million make him No. 16 on the all-time list. All the success is reason enough to smoke a cigar now and then.
“I’ve evolved a lot as a player and a person the last five years,” he says before tucking into his plate of chicken. “I’ve worked hard in becoming a more complete golfer in different parts of my game. I feel like I’ve gotten into quite a bit better shape. I’m getting married in the fall [to Jillian Wisniewski]. I’ve had a lot of things all for the better happen. I’ve continued to work on my wedge game, my short irons, something I feel is a strength of mine that I’ve tried to improve. Continue to work on my putting and get that more consistent, get my bad days a lot better, a big thing for me.”
His cherubic looks have matured into merely boyish now, though his stellar game makes him a man among boys rather than the other way around. He will always look young, but will always play older. Driven by the passion of his youth, Thomas is now guided by the wisdom of his experience.
His interest in the occasional cigar goes back to his college days at Alabama, and the University’s burning rivalry with Tennessee. “It’s a fun Alabama tradition that every time you beat Tennessee you light up a cigar after the game and we’ve been fortunate that it’s happened every single year,” says Thomas, who enjoys a Montecristo No. 2 when he can lay his hands on one. Cigars also bring back memories of his late grandfather Paul.
“My cigar memories are from my grandpa who always smoked cigars. That’s what my dad would get him for his birthday,” says Thomas. “He smoked massive stogies. Always had one on him. Sometimes he would change cigars when he watched my tournaments for good luck for me. If one wasn’t working he would light up another. That’s always my first thought when I smoke a cigar, or see someone with one. I think of my grandpa.”
Grandpa Paul, who was a PGA pro like Thomas’ dad, would even share the occasional stogie with his grandson. “A handful of times I’ve got a couple from him,” says Thomas. “Those I made sure to smoke because I know they are good.”
Right now, it’s hard to conceive of anything other than good for Thomas. This is a man trying to win tournaments, not trying to make the cut. Sure, there can be disappointments in not closing the deal when he thinks he should. He was in the mix after two rounds of The Players in 2022, then sputtered some the next two rounds. He was sniffing the lead at the Valspar Championship the next week, but just couldn’t get it done on Sunday. Still, he was right there, finishing in third, just one stroke shy of the lead. As he addresses his questioner, there is a certainty of purpose in that straight-on look, the certainty of a winner.
Thomas’ game has certainly matured. He still comes off the ground on his tee shots, his 5-10, 155-pound body propelling his drives farther than they have a right to go. His iron swing, by contrast, is under complete control, more like an Adam Scott. After early in his career being told by close friend Tiger Woods that he needed to develop more shots, that’s just what he did. And his short game and putting are still good enough to get him into contention regularly. “He’s able to separate himself with great iron play,” says Brandel Chamblee, the Golf Channel guru. “The trajectory of his shots is the highest in the game. I can’t think of anyone else in the game that has a higher trajectory. I can’t think of anyone else in the game that has a more upright golf swing than him. These are huge advantages. He’s got plenty of speed …He’s got this uncanny ability to switch gears. Everybody talks about wanting to hit their long irons high and short irons low, that’s the dream of every professional golfer. And he has that.”
Bones Mackay, the longtime caddie for icon Phil Mickelson, started caddying for Thomas last season. “I see in Justin traits and work ethic that render him one of the great players of all time,” says Mackay. “When you combine that with the fact that he’s a classy guy to spend a lot of time around, it’s an incredible job to have. He works as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s a no-days-off kind of guy. He was the kind of guy that when play was suspended during the pandemic, he was waking up every morning thinking about what he could do that day to become better at golf. As a caddie you love that in a player. He’s got length, he’s got guts, he’s got all kinds of shots.”
Thomas has been playing for nearly all of his life, swinging a persimmon two wood his father Mike trimmed down to size when he was only two years old. He was a standout junior player, part of the high school class of 2011, a standout group of golfers that famously includes longtime friend and rival Jordan Spieth (see sidebar). Thomas was a top-five recruit who became a standout player for the University of Alabama, a team that won the national championship in 2013, his sophomore season.
Thomas’ father Mike is the only swing coach Justin has ever had. He sees a natural progression in Justin’s game. “He knows his own game better than he did five years ago,” says Mike Thomas, who maintains his long-standing job as head pro at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Kentucky, about a half hour’s drive from Louisville, where Justin was born. “The biggest overall difference in his game is his patience level ... He was very aggressive. Some bad shots or a bogey would get him a little impatient on swings after the fact where now he handles bogeys much better, stays in the moment.... Contrary to what people might think, we aren’t looking for something new, couldn’t be farther from the truth. Like any golfer, we know what is important to his golf swing and those are the things we work on.”
Work, work, work it is. Working like his idol and close friend Tiger Woods. It helps that Thomas lives near Woods in Florida, and that he comes from a different golf generation. Thomas might never had gotten close to Woods if he were an opponent that Woods was trying to beat all the time.
So what advice has Woods given Thomas? “He’s told me a lot, I’ve learned a lot of things from him,” says Thomas. “Been very, very helpful and influential helping me get to where I am. Just giving advice.” When pressed for specifics, it seems Thomas has learned one of Woods’ best tricks, answering the question without answering the question. “I take pride in him telling me that so I like keeping that between us,” says Thomas, who then shows even more of the Tiger mentality. “If it’s going to help other players,” he says with a smile, “I really don’t want them to know.”
Thomas has someone else in his corner that a few people might know—Michael Jordan. He joins the basketball hall-of-famer at his private Florida club, Grove XXIII, for the occasional game. He first met Jordan when he was a teenager and caddied for him when the greatest of all Chicago Bulls would bring his friends to the Kentucky Derby and, naturally, get in a round of golf at Harmony Landing.
“Being out with him playing some golf, it’s highly competitive and why we get along so well,” says Thomas. “We are constantly jawing and trash talking each other and we enjoy the competitive side of things and he’s obviously a huge golfer. I turn to him for advice and obviously these are two different sports as to what I’m doing and what he’s doing but as much as he loves and understands the game of golf it’s pretty easy to adapt the two sports.”
Thomas and Jordan share a love of cigars, although Thomas’ intake pales in comparison to Jordan, who famously smokes six cigars a day. The two have yet to smoke a cigar together.
Thomas has other things on his plate beside golf, such as the upcoming marriage. And there’s his foundation that benefits good works in the Louisville and the greater Palm Beach area. All a part of the inevitable maturation of a golf superstar.
“He’s matured unbelievably over this five-year period,” says Mike. “His foundation and wanting to do things for other people. He’s holding everyone around him, including me or his caddie or his physio, accountable and that’s a very mature thing for a young kid—though he’s quickly getting past the young kid stage.”
While he’s not hitting balls for hours, he’s pretty good at doing nothing for hours. “Being mentally fresh and getting away from the game is sometimes just as important as putting in the time on the range,” he says with a hint of gleam in his eyes. “I still do really well sitting on the couch.”
There’s a modesty that overlays Thomas’ drive for greatness. He doesn’t talk about being great, but he talks about achieving.
“I don’t have many goals in terms of a career,” says Thomas. “I have a lot of process-related goals and know if I stick to the processes and don’t have a ceiling you can accomplish as much as you possibly can. I think I can do a lot. It’s not like a thing where I can win X amount of Tour events or X amount of majors. It’s about going out and executing and doing it.”