It’s not enough to be a great athlete anymore. You have to be a great athlete and a likable star to succeed beyond the game in today’s media age. In the Netflix sports documentary “Full Swing” – pitched as “Drive to Survive but for…” Justin Thomas flaunted his smooth and unmistakable charm while notching a second major championship.
It would be an overstatement to say that Justin Thomas makes it look easy. No one makes golf look easy. But he makes the human side seem effortless. He’s funny on “Full Swing,” a teasing, insouciant presence despite his #15 world ranking, and similarly numbered PGA tour wins under his belt. Also, his company is growing, blossoming really from a scar on his left leg.
Back in 2019, he had a mole removed. Thus the scar. A biopsy revealed the growth was early stage melanoma. Thomas had not taken sun protection seriously. He’d embraced the stupid golf hat tan thing and shrugged off burns. But the diagnosis shook him enough to start lathering up when outdoors. Then he took the next step and started his own extremely self-explanatory sunscreen brand, Wear SPF.
SPY caught up with the reigning PGA Championship winner at his home in Jupiter, Florida, where he was preparing for a title defense at Oak Hill Country Club.
You had this Melanoma scare a while back that inspired you to start Wear SPF. The brand is focused on young athletes, but the thing I’m curious about is whether or not you’re getting guys on the tour to wear SPF. Is the peer pressure paying off?
Definitely! Especially since we’ve been wearing shorts in practice rounds the last couple years. My scar is very visible now versus before and I have guys that I’ve been friends with forever on tour ask: ‘What the heck happened to your leg?’ So, I tell them my story and about getting checked. The thing that always scares them is that my doctor told me I was just a couple of months away from being a patient in the hospital.
I was texting my doctor at nine thirty at night, which is usually not a good thing. That’s when he told me. It was something I honestly didn’t know very much about and it opened me to that world of just understanding it a little bit more.
Obviously I can’t put sunscreen on the other players myself, but I do the best I can.
Are you taking any other precautions beyond wearing sunscreen?
If I’m out in the sun near the pool, I’ll wear a sun shirt. I wear a hat all the time when I’m playing golf, but also if I’m just outside. It’s kind of the basics I would say.
In just about two weeks, you’ll be defending your PGA Championship. How’s the game and is there anything different you do to prepare for majors?
My game’s good. It’s definitely been trending in the right direction. It hasn’t been the year that I would have liked, but I feel like I’ve been making efforts and strides in the areas that I feel like I need to. But success in golf is such a fine line. Some weeks the difference finishing 30th and, and fifth or even first is just a bounce here and there or a putt dropping.
The PGA Tour has elevated some tournaments to what are called “Designated Events.” Those championships feature larger purses to entice the world’s best to play more regularly. Do you think they have been successful so far?
I think they’ve been very successful. They’ve done exactly what the tour and all of us hoped that they would. I mean, it brings all the top players to those events and they’ve produced some pretty impressive finishes. Look at the leaderboards on Saturdays and Sundays and you have numerous people that have a chance to win the golf tournament in the top 15 or 20 that are the top players in the world. That’s what fans want. Whether they’re watching for the first time or watching weekly, that’s what we want as a whole for the product, if you will.
Next year, those designated events won’t feature a 36 hole cut. Do you agree with that format? Or do you think some, like the Genesis Invitational (formerly the LA Open) and the Memorial Tournament should include a cut as their hosts have requested?
I think the hosts should have the right to be able to make that decision, but I’m not super strong one way or the other on that.
Speaking of cuts, the only one you’ve missed this year was at the Masters and was after an on-course interview. Some cite that outcome as evidence the “walk and talks” are a bad idea, even though they’ve been doing them on the European Tour for quite a while. Do you think they are a “distraction?” Or do they add value for fans?
A hundred percent it wasn’t a distraction. I actually felt like it helped me more than anything. I would say that the weather was more of the issue than doing a walk and talk. Unless you get asked horrific questions at a really bad time, you may start thinking differently. But to me it’s a good opportunity and the fans really like it. The people who watch golf may see videos of us walking down the fairway, but they don’t necessarily know what we’re thinking. So I think having those conversations with whomever is in the booth just gives extra depth for the regular golf watcher.
You’ve been outspoken against rolling the golf ball back. Do you think the distance gains made by elite players over the past twenty years is an issue and if so how would you address it?
I don’t think it’s an issue. I just think that we first off are just better athletes. We train a lot harder. We have Track Mans (launch monitors.) We use everything to our advantage to figure out how to get the most out of what we have. And I think honestly, the solution is to have a better golf course set up. The USGA (United States Golf Association) always thinks it’s length, but if you look at some of the places we play that have some of the higher scores and they’re some of the shorter courses we play – places like Pebble Beach or Riviera or Harbor Town some years. They’re short golf courses, but they’re designed properly with narrow fairways, small greens and long rough. If you wanna take drivers outta the long hitter’s hands, then make the rough longer at 340 or 350 yards. That’s something that can totally be controlled in the golf course setup. I’ve used the analogy before, but people are running the mile faster than they did 40 years ago, or people are jumping higher in the NBA than they used to but it’s just the evolution of sports.
You are about to turn 30 years old (April 29) … and you strike me as someone who knows how to celebrate. How are you marking the occasion?
I think my wife is getting some people together to come over to the house, but at the same time I got a golf tournament next week. So I’m preparing and getting ready for that. So I’ll probably just play golf in the morning and then go to the house and hang out with some friends and just enjoy the day.
Any gifts on the wishlist?
Not really. I’m very fortunate and as I tell my parents and Jill, if I want something, I’ll probably get it for myself. But I enjoy time with my closest friends and family more than anything. So that’s all I really want.
Later this year your first course, Panther National, is slated to open. You co-designed it with Jack Nicklaus, what did you learn from the experience?
Yeah, it’s been really cool! We’re still going through the process, so I’m still learning, honestly. More than anything I try to sit back and listen to him and just kind of hear the things he has to say, whether it be about why you build a bunker a certain way, or put a green a certain way. It’s been more so just watching him work and understanding.
Were there any flourishes or contributions you’re particularly proud of?
I feel like I had a pretty good adjustment or change on number 11. The hole (design) prior was not very good. It was just very bland – a long par five that maybe looked pretty, but wasn’t functional. You couldn’t get to it in two because of a creek plus it was uphill. Basically everybody was just gonna be laying up in the same area and playing it as 120 yard par three. Honestly it was kind of a waste of a hole and a waste of an opportunity. So we moved the creek back and kind of altered some things and changed the contours of the fairway so that you could chase one down there to potentially be able to get it close to the green to have a little bit of risk reward in it.
Throughout your junior, amateur and professional careers you’ve played some of the best courses on the planet. Has there been a favorite?
I think Riviera is a really great course. It’s got no water on it. Out of bounds is not really in play. The course isn’t very long but it’s very challenging. There’s no rough either. I mean, it’s just, it’s a proper, proper golf course and very well designed.
I love Harbor Town. Having to play the angles and how far or short you hit it off the tee could change those angles, but you have to take a little bit of risk. TPC Sawgrass forces you to work the ball a lot of different ways, both off the tee and into the green. Mostly I like places that offer options off the tee. Places that insist you hit some shots to get to certain pins or to hold fairways or to give you an advantage into the green.
And is there a course still on your bucket list you have yet to play?
I’ve never played Pine Valley. I wanna play there. I’ve never played Merion, and I would definitely do a golf trip in Scotland or Ireland with some buddies. I think that’d be fun!