PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Seated in the front row at the outdoor trophy presentation, Mike Thomas wiped his eyes, his nose, his mouth. Normally stoic behind mirrored sunglasses and a black neck gaiter, he’d finally broken down – the toll of a trying few months, both as a father and as a son. He needed to gather himself, so he hiked up his pants, ambled over and patted his son on the shoulder.
“That looked like a round by the old Justin Thomas,” he beamed.
No doubt, the quality of Thomas’ golf looked frighteningly familiar – the laser irons and the birdie binges and the putter raises. They all added up to a masterful final-round performance at TPC Sawgrass, where he hit 17 greens, shot a 4-under 68 and won The Players Championship by a shot over Lee Westwood. Add another line to his résumé: He’s just the fourth player to win a major, The Players, a World Golf Championship and the FedExCup. At 27, he’s already a lock for the Hall of Fame.
But his buoyant mood belied what had been, in his words, a “crappy couple months,” and was the reason why he and his family were overcome with the kind of emotion that hadn’t been seen during his previous 14 titles.
“I kept telling everyone on my team and my family that I’m ready for something good to happen this year,” he said. “It’s been a pretty bad year, and a lot of bad things have happened. But that’s life. That’s part of it.”
Yes, there were bad things, plural, starting with the anti-gay slur that he uttered to himself and was picked up by a hot mic at the opening event of 2021. But since then, the question has become how much penance is sufficient. Thomas had apologized profusely, in multiple interviews, and seemed appropriately contrite and sincere. He publicly stated that he understood why a longtime sponsor would dump him. He vowed to go through sensitivity training to better himself. And yet he still seemed to carry the weight of that mistake with him.
“I think the pushback hurt him,” Mike Thomas said. “It was the first time that he was faced with something like that, and it hurt him a lot. He had much more support, but I think it’s human nature that you focus on the negatives.”
Star athletes have weathered all sorts of controversies. Sex scandals. Substance abuse problems. Domestic violence incidents. It’s a reminder that these athletes are still human beings who have flaws other than just a streaky putting stroke or shoddy wedge play. No one in the Internet age has endured more PR crises than Thomas’ boyhood idol, Tiger Woods. In 2013, after Woods won for the first time since his personal life unraveled following sordid details of infidelity, Nike released an advertising campaign proclaiming that “winning takes care of everything.” His popularity rating at the time suggested otherwise, but sports fans are a forgiving bunch. They love winners and greatness, and Woods’ enduring appeal underscores that.
Represented by the same management company as Woods, Thomas continued to say all the right things, but his shaky play had given the sporting public little reason to move past the distraction. “It was just a lot, and it took a lot out of me mentally,” he said. “But at the same time, I had to figure it out and had to get over it. If I wanted to come to these tournaments and have a chance to win, then I needed to suck it up and get over it. If I wanted to throw a pity party for myself, or feel sorry for myself, then there’s no reason to show up, and I can stay home until I feel like I’m ready. I felt like I was in a good enough head space where I could play. I just wasn’t playing well. And then once I wasn’t playing well, it was kind of snowballing.”
A month later, on the eve of the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Thomas learned that his 89-year-old grandfather, Paul, a lifelong PGA member and the patriarch of a golfing family, had passed away. Thomas was in contention at the time, in a tie for fifth. Mike Thomas said his son considered not playing the final day.
“I just told him …” Mike Thomas said, breaking down in tears. He finally gathered himself after a 30-second pause. “I just knew my dad would have wanted him to go out and play. He played a great round that Sunday (72) with all that going on.”
Thomas showed up two weeks later at Riviera with his heart still broken and his game out of sorts. Five-hour rounds allow plenty of time for introspection – and to dwell on the turmoil in his personal life.
“He was just distracted,” said his caddie, Jimmy Johnson. “His concentration was lacking.”
A few days later, another reason for distraction: Woods was seriously injured in a car crash in Southern California. At the time, Thomas was preparing to play in the World Golf Championships event outside Tampa. He learned the news about 15 minutes before a pre-tournament news conference. Little was known at the time of Woods’ condition, and Thomas wiped away tears while talking about how he hoped his close friend was OK.
“I think that hurt him a lot,” Mike Thomas said. “It’s just the first time for a young kid that it all steamrolled and hit him at once. We all go through that and that was his time. He fought through it. There’s people that have a whole lot more problems than we do, but that was his first time really dealing with the discomfort that comes with losing loved ones and the backlash of everything that happened before that.”
At the encouragement of his girlfriend, Jill Wisniewski, Thomas sought professional help. “I’m not embarrassed to say that I reached out to talk to people to let my feelings out and just discuss stuff with them,” he said. “Especially at our level, a lot of people probably think that they’re bigger and better than that, but some of the thoughts and things that I was feeling, it wasn’t fair to myself, and I needed to do something.”
Thomas arrived here at TPC Sawgrass in a better head space, if only slightly. Early in the week, when asked about his mental state, he allowed only that he was doing “OK” and that he has “definitely been better.”
His game had once again given him few reasons for optimism. Uncharacteristically struggling off the tee, he opened with consecutive rounds of 71 and was seven back heading into the weekend. Father and son worked on the range, trying to keep the club more down the line at the top of the swing.
“That’s all you need to do,” Mike told him.
In the third round, Thomas ripped off the low score of the tournament, an 8-under 64 that vaulted him into contention, three shots off the lead. Still, he downplayed his game: “It was only one round. It’s not like I feel unbelievable again and I’m back to how I felt in 2017 or ’18.” He started slowly in the final round, playing the first eight holes in 1 over and remaining three back as he played the par-5 ninth. Facing a 236-yard shot into a narrow opening of the green, Thomas rifled a 5-iron that settled 23 feet away, leading to a two-putt birdie. That’s all he needed to see.
A 7-footer on 10. A 20-footer for eagle on 11. An up-and-down for another birdie on 12. He played a four-hole stretch in 5 under, leapfrogging Westwood. A two-putt birdie on the par-5 16th gave him a one-shot advantage that he wouldn’t relinquish.
“That was a ball-striking clinic today,” Johnson said.
This was the largest fan footprint in nine months, with roughly 10,000 streaming through the gates, and they’re reliably some of the most boisterous on Tour. The question lingered: How would they greet Thomas, after his “crappy few months”?
With chants of “J-T! J-T!”
With calls of “Roll Tide!”
With unwavering support. They gave him a standing ovation as he strode toward the island green at 17.
Indeed, it sounded, felt and looked like a round by the old JT. He twirled his clubs and pumped his fist and hit a record-tying 17 greens in regulation – his only miss by a few inches on the closing hole, with a sand wedge.
“I’ve been working really hard on getting myself back to where I should be and where I want to be,” Thomas said, before adding: “Winning definitely helps. Winning helps everything.”
Waiting behind the 18th green was Mike Thomas, who is a fixture at tournaments and, unlike most golf dads, rarely shows emotion. He gave his son a hug and sent him on his way, but once someone mentioned how proud his dad must have felt, looking down, he lost it, and started sobbing into his neck gaiter.
His emotions were still raw a half hour later.
“He’s tougher than I am,” Mike Thomas said. “He’s just stayed himself through this. He hasn’t ranted about anything. He hasn’t gone off on anybody. He’s done the work. I’m proud of that. He’s a good kid. This is big for him. This is a big breakthrough.”
UEFA threaten to ban breakaway clubs from all competitions
By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – European soccer‘s governing body UEFA has warned clubs linked to a breakaway Super League that they face being banned from domestic and international competitions if they set up a rival to the Champions League.
In a joint statement https://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/mediaservices/mediareleases/news/0268-12121411400e-7897186e699a-1000–statement-by-uefa-english-fa-rfef-figc-premier-league-laliga-le with Spanish, English and Italian leagues and federations, UEFA said it will consider “all measures”, including the courts and bans from domestic leagues, in opposition to plans for a breakaway competition.
UEFA said it had learnt that clubs from those countries “may be planning to announce their creation of a closed, so-called Super League”.
“If this were to happen, we wish to reiterate that we….(and) also FIFA and all our member associations – will remain united in our efforts to stop this cynical project, a project that is founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever,” UEFA said.
“We will consider all measures available to us, at all levels, both judicial and sporting in order to prevent this happening. Football is based on open competitions and sporting merit; it cannot be any other way,” the statement added.
In January, FIFA had said that a breakaway league would not be recognised and that “any club or player involved in such a competition would as a consequence not be allowed to participate in any competition organised by FIFA or their respective confederation” – meaning players would be banned from the World Cup.
Sunday’s UEFA statement said: “The clubs concerned will be banned from playing in any other competition at domestic, European or world level, and their players could be denied the opportunity to represent their national teams.
“We thank those clubs in other countries, especially the French and German clubs, who have refused to sign up to this. We call on all lovers of football, supporters and politicians, to join us in fighting against such a project if it were to be announced. This persistent self-interest of a few has been going on for too long. Enough is enough.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond and Christian Radnedge)
Netherlands and Poland seal narrow Billie Jean King Cup playoff wins
In Den Bosch, the Dutch were without world number 11 Kiki Bertens for the second day because of injury and found themselves trailing China 2-1 after Wang Xiyu beat Lesley Kerkhove in Saturday’s opening singles.
But Aranxta Rus beat Wang Xinyu to level the tie and then teamed up with Demi Schuurs to defeat Zhang Shuai and Zu Yifan to send the hosts through.
It was equally tight in Poland where the hosts were pushed to the brink by Brazil.
Brazil’s Carolina Meligeni Alves took the tie into a deciding doubles with a win over Katarzyna Kawa but the Poles prevailed 3-2 as Kawa and Magdalena Frech came back from a set down to beat Meligeni Alves and Luisa Stefani.
Kazakhstan also won a deciding rubber to see off Argentina.
Britain led 2-0 overnight against Mexico in London but Marcela Zacarias beat Heather Watson to keep alive the tie.
Katie Boulter proved too strong for Giuliana Olmos though to clinch the tie for the hosts.
Italy beat Romania 3-1 while Canada‘s teenager Leylah Annie Fernandez sealed her country’s path as she gave her side an unassailable 3-0 lead over Serbia thanks to a three-set win over Nina Stojanovic.
Ukraine eased past Japan 4-0 while Anastasija Sevastova secured Latvia’s 3-1 victory over India.
The eight winners move forward to next year’s qualifying round where they will hope to reach the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup Finals.
The old Fed Cup was re-branded last year and named after the American great and 12-times Grand Slam singles champion who won the inaugural tournament nearly 60 years ago.
This year’s 12-team Finals were postponed because of the pandemic and a new date has yet to be finalised.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Clare Fallon)
Motor racing-Canadian Grand Prix cancelled for second year
(Reuters) -The Canadian Grand Prix scheduled for June 13 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal has been cancelled for the second year in a row, CBC Radio reported on Thursday although Formula One said discussions remained ongoing.
With the spread of new COVID-19 variants and Canada battling to contain a third wave of the virus, Montreal public health authorities concluded that even if run behind closed doors without spectators the risks were too high, reported the CBC.
F1 officials, according to the CBC, wanted to bypass the mandatory 14-day quarantine for the hundreds of staff, crew members and drivers and rely on private medical staff and have the entire operation run in a bubble.
The race is scheduled to follow on immediately from Azerbaijan, whose grand prix is scheduled for June 6 in Baku and is due to go ahead after also being cancelled last year.
“We are continuing our discussions with the promoter in Canada and have no further comment,” an F1 spokesperson told Reuters.
The Autosport website quoted a spokesperson for the Canadian promoter as saying the radio report referred to “a document of recommendations from public health.
“We as an organisation have not had confirmation from our public health officials and won’t comment until we get an official confirmation.”
Canada, with some of the world’s toughest travel rules, obliges its citizens and residents arriving from abroad to self-isolate for 14 days.
International arrivals are required to quarantine for up to three days in a hotel.
One of Canada‘s biggest sporting events, it would mark the second consecutive year the grand prix has been removed from the F1 schedule due to the spread of COVID-19.
Media reports have suggested Turkey is on standby to be slotted in as Canada‘s replacement.
The Istanbul circuit is logistically convenient for freight coming from Baku and was brought in last year also at short notice to bolster a calendar ravaged by the pandemic.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto/Alan Baldwin in London; Editing by Ken Ferris)
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