AUSTIN — Following his 3-and-2 loss to Bubba Watson in the semifinals of the WGC-Dell Match Play on Sunday, Justin Thomas made it clear the imminent prospect of becoming the No. 1 golfer in the world—he needed to beat Bubba to make it happen—was not an excuse for the result. Thomas made bad shots, burned the edges on his putts, Bubba played well and, etc. etc. But he also showed an unusual degree of honesty when asked by the AP’s Doug Ferguson whether he was more upset about losing the match, or his chance grab the label of the planet’s best golfer.
“I haven’t had such a hard time not thinking about something so much,” Thomas said. And if that sentiment was a little difficult to parse at first, what he said next brooked no ambiguity:
“And that really sucked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest.”
The response was stunning in its understated way, not because of the content (which was completely understandable) but because it actually came out of JT’s mouth. Ninety-eight percent of golfers, in the same situation and regardless of the truth, would have answered with a series of cliches: “I was focused on my match against Bubba Watson. The No. 1 ranking would have been nice, but that’s not what I was thinking about out there. I’m disappointed to lose this match, and the chance to win the tournament. If I play well, the ranking will take care of itself.”
Thomas’ forthright answer is rare, and it leads to a tricky situation. There will be at least a few stories with a headline like this one, honing in on that one reply. Thomas may eventually decide that it would have been easier to lie—to give the media boilerplate and snuff the oxygen out of the story. But I hope he doesn’t, because this is more interesting, and more human, and more relatable. (In his shoes, who wouldn’t have been thinking about attaining the top world ranking?)
This, of course, is a very minor tragedy in what has been a stellar career for the 24-year-old. In the past year, he’s gone from the butt of jokes about being Jordan Spieth’s sidekick to establishing himself as a major winner and one of the best players alive. And Sunday’s chance at the No. 1 ranking was not do-or-die—he will inch that much closer tomorrow, and the threshold for what he needs to summit the peak will be even smaller when he tees it up at Augusta in two weeks. If 20 years pass and he never gets this close again, we may look at today as his “Phil at the U.S. Open” moment, but based on the way he’s playing, that seems very doubtful.
Nevertheless, Thomas was downcast as he walked up the 16th fairway. And after Bubba warned the spectators behind the green to pay attention (“we’re gonna play some golf here!”). And after Thomas dropped a long birdie putt to preserve some very faint hope (he could barely muster the joy to acknowledge the cheers). And after Bubba snuffed it out with a birdie of his own to close thing out, Thomas proceeding zombie-like through the TV and radio interviews.
Here’s the entirety of his post-match appearance on PGA Tour radio:
Q. One of those days when you try to make a putt there when it doesn’t mean anything. Tough day out there for you?
JUSTIN THOMAS: Yeah, just didn’t play very well. And Bubba played really well. So that’s a pretty bad combination in match play.
Q. Good luck this afternoon [in the third-place match].
JUSTIN THOMAS: Thank you.
A few feet away, Bubba joked about having a “50/50 chance” to win the event on Sunday afternoon, but Thomas wore an expression of quiet devastation. With the way he stared silently at his interviewers as they asked him to describe his disappointment, I half expected a blow-up, or at least a caustic/sullen retort. But I had it wrong; mentally, Thomas was far away, already steeped in regret. The wide eyes were more like a symptom of shock, and less like a sign of impending fury.
“I need to be mentally stronger than that, and understand that it’s just a match,” he said a few minutes later, and as he signed the standard and a collection of hats from the volunteers, he did not seem overjoyed at the prospect of having to play a consolation match. I had the thought at the moment that he would almost definitely lose, but then Alex Noren lost in 19 holes to Kevin Kisner in his latest effort to break through with a win on American soil, and the distinction between the two painful failures seemed pretty small.
Beyond the narrow miss with the World Rankings, though, this is another great week for Thomas, and another sign that he should be grouped with Watson and Rory McIlroy and nobody else in the trio of super-favorites to win at Augusta. He may feel down today, and it may linger with the memory of what was at stake, but the Justin Thomas’ trajectory shoots upward by the week, and shows no signs of slowing.