Justin Thomas on defending his PGA title and golfing with Jordan – Robb Report
This week, the PGA Tour schedule officially kicks into high gear with a return to the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, where golf’s fifth, albeit unofficial, The Players Championship will be played for the 48th time. “Any time you’re here at The Players it’s a big deal,” Justin Thomas said immediately after winning last year. “It’s such a huge event. Everyone knows it’s major. . .I don’t think you can go wrong calling it one. . .It’s just a great test of golf, which is why it’s The Players Championship.
Ahead of Thomas’ title defense this week at Sawgrass – something no player has managed to do – we sat down with the 28-year-old to discuss the tournament, his sneakerhead style and his strategy for overcoming. Tiger Woods. Along the way, we also found out who opened one of Thomas’ special bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. (Hint: it wasn’t him!)
You said you knew after playing TPC Sawgrass for the first time that you were going to win there. How did the course inspire that confidence?
It’s one of those places where I love how it looks from the tee, and it’s a course that really forces player creativity – you have to hit a lot of different shots. If you hit well and hit a lot of fairways, you can birdie a lot there. But if you’re not, you’re going to have a hard time breaking par, and I think that’s really a sign of a good golf course when you see fluctuating scores as much as you do there- low.
Are there any other classes you haven’t won that are similar to you?
Augusta National, of course. I love everything about Augusta. I know a lot of the subtle nuances of the course and the greens – where to hit it and where not to hit it. I feel at ease there; lots of holes look good on my eye. I am confident that I will win there at some point, if not many times, in my career. But at the end of the day, it’s all about execution. It’s still golf. You don’t know what you’re going to get, so there’s no guarantee.
Tiger Woods was the last player to win a second Players Championship, but his victories were 12 years apart. If you were to win TPC Sawgrass again this year, becoming the first player to win it in a row, would you use it as ammunition in your rib war with Tiger? If so, how do you think he would react?
I know better than to get into a golf achievement dispute with Tiger Woods. I may be a college dropout, but I’m much smarter than that!
When did you first discover Stadium Cours?
I played in the AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) Junior Players Championship as a 15 year old in 2008.
During those junior golf days, you lived in Louisville, Kentucky. If we were to go back now, where would you take me?
First, we were going to Harmony Landing, the course where I grew up. This is a great little tree lined course that is fun to play. It’s just a “no rules” place – a fun trail to ride. I would probably also go to Gerstles in St. Matthews. This is a great old fashioned bar where my high school buddies and I spent quite a few nights. St. Matthews is a great little neighborhood for restaurants and bars with a handful of places within walking distance.
When most people think of Louisville — and Kentucky in general — one of the first associations they make is bourbon. Are you a bourbon drinker yourself?
Yes, I like bourbon. I got to know a lot of people at Woodford Reserve. I actually created two barrels there, which is nice. It’s my own special blend, if you will. So I have some of these bottles at home.
Are there any other important or valuable bourbon bottles on your bar?
I was very lucky to receive cool gifts. In 2017 Julian Van Winkle came to my dad’s club, and he had two bottles – I think a 10 or 12 year old Pappy – with special engraved labels to commemorate my PGA Championship victory that year and also to have won the FedEx Cup. It was really cool and very thoughtful of him. So I have these special bottles at home. Bourbon is definitely more of a Kentucky drink than a Florida drink. We don’t exactly have those 30 and 40 degree nights in Jupiter, Florida like we do in Louisville, where you just want to sit around a bonfire. But there are still opportunities for it.
I guess winning a tournament on the PGA Tour is one of those occasions?
After a victory, give me what you want. I do not care. [In that moment] I’m just happy to have won, but I’m tired.
So when would like to would you be inclined to open one of these special bourbon bottles?
I mean, of course, I don’t open a bottle of Pappy for nothing. Three or four years ago my parents were in town, and that was before they moved to Florida. My dad likes to have a bourbon once in a while in the evening, so I said, “Dad, you know, if you want a bourbon, help yourself. And he said, “Oh, I know, I have one.” So I asked, “Well, what did you pour?” And he said, “Oh, I just saw some of that Pappy over there, so I just got some.” And I look and there’s like this many gone (raises fingers to mark two thumbs). So I said, “Dad, you just opened this Pappy because it’s a random Tuesday and you thought you were okay?” And he said, “Well, you have to drink it eventually.” So that’s how it is that bottle of Pappy has been opened.
Sticking with the bar, we know your home bar is part of a bigger man cave, complete with a chic red felt pool table embossed with the University of Alabama logo. We feel like you must be spending quite a bit of time in this room. Are we right?
I do it. It’s very seasonal, I would say, and situational. I spend a lot of Saturdays and Sundays there in the fall. I have five TVs on the wall and one at the bar as well. I love football, so I’m basically going to watch as many football games at once as possible. I had a lot of good nights and good times with friends there. I used to live with Bud Cauley, and we had serious sessions playing pool. There are no windows up there so you can sort of lose track of time.
Your Man Cave also offers custom sports jerseys from professional athletes who have become your friends. One of these athletes is Michael Jordan. What’s it like hanging out with him and playing golf together?
He is great fun to play with and every round is competitive. They’re just competitive in different ways. Some are fun competition rounds where we chat all day, and others will be very serious with very high stakes where we don’t talk as much but still both want to fight our brains out. So it doesn’t matter if he and I are golfing, or gin in the locker room, or we’re fishing. Either way, he’s gonna want to fight me or whoever he’s going against. You don’t get where he got in his career without that hunger to win no matter what you do. It’s really fun to play with him.
And you share this same competitive spirit all the time?
For sure. I don’t like losing anything. What’s the point of doing it if you don’t expect to do it better than the others? That’s how I am.
Let’s talk about the other Jordans in your life. We hear you have an affinity for collectible sneakers. Do you consider yourself a collector?
I don’t know if there is a difference between sneakerhead and sneaker collector, but I wouldn’t call myself a sneaker collector. I don’t buy shoes with the intention of collecting them, like a [Miami Heat forward] The kind of PJ Tucker where he has the shoes that the people who made them don’t even have. I’m not even close to that. But I love having shoes and the fun is getting the exclusive ones and getting them out sooner.
What in particular attracts you to Jordans?
Street style is my off-course fashion sense, so a good pair of Jordans goes with a lot.
If you had to pull out a few favorite pairs from your closet, which ones would you pick?
My favorite and most comfortable shoes are a pair of Union Jordan 1s, the LA’s. I’ve worn them a lot, but they’re just perfectly broken in. This is one of my favorite stylish shoes with good coloring. They go with just about everything. And I have a few pairs of Jordan 1 Off-Whites that I really like. I also have a pair of Jordan 1 J Balvins which are pretty weird. They have a lot of different colors and things, but I don’t wear them too often.
Looks like you never buy shoes just to have them. In other words, if you don’t wear them, they don’t take up space in your closet. Is it correct?
I have shoes that I just don’t get to wear that often. I don’t have many outfits where I could wear a red and yellow shoe, for example. But when I do, I have a pair.
Have you made exceptions to this rule?
There was a pair of Low Jordan 1s that came out before Halloween. Naturally they are orange and black, but orange is an absolutely no go color for me because of Auburn and how much I hate them. So I don’t wear orange. But these shoes are hard to get and they are quite expensive, and I just don’t want to give them away. So my pettiness decided I’m just going to save them for Halloween. I just can’t bring myself to give them away, so this is the only time a year I’ll wear them.
Back to golf… You’ve had the chance to play many spectacular golf courses in your career, but which courses are still on your to-do list?
I never played Pine Valley, I never played Merion. I would love to go play Bandon Dunes and some of those courses. And I love golf in the Northeast, so I’d like to go to the Hamptons area and play a bunch of little courses that have never hosted a PGA Tour event or anything like that, but which are just fun tracks to play.
One last question for you: if you knew your next round of golf would be your last, where would you choose to play it and why?
I would like to play in Baker’s Bay in the Bahamas. I could wear a bathing suit and no shirt, no shoes. I could play music as loud as I want and jump into the ocean between the holes. I could have good food and lots of cocktails, and I would die happy.