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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Justin Thomas isn’t looking for sympathy.
He made a terrible, careless, insensitive mistake earlier this year when he muttered a homophobic slur to himself after missing a short putt at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii and it was caught on TV by a boom microphone.
And from the moment he was publicly chastised for it — he was excoriated on social media and one of his biggest sponsors, Ralph Lauren, quickly dropped him — Thomas has owned his mistake, wondered aloud why he would say such a thing, because it’s never been what he’s been about.
Thomas has not run from his mistake, instead promising to learn from it, to get better from it, to become what he described as a “better person’’ for it.
The problem for him, though, is that while he may have become that “better person’’ he promised to be, that hasn’t applied to his golf. His game has slumped since the incident.
Thomas finished third at the Sentry. That was followed by a missed cut at the HSBC Championship in Abu Dhabi, a tie for 13th at the Waste Management, a missed cut at the Genesis Invitational and a tie for 15th at the WGC-Workday last week.
While those are not hideous results, they are considered indifferent and not what you expect from the No. 3 player in the world who’s won 13 tournaments in the past five-plus years.
They’re not up to Thomas’ standards as he enters Thursday’s first round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, where he’s paired with Patrick Cantlay and Viktor Hovland the first two days.
“I have definitely been better,’’ Thomas said. “But at the same time, it’s a good opportunity for me to try to grow and learn and get stronger because of it. It has kind of put a lot of things into perspective, and unfortunately for my golf, it’s taken a toll on that a little bit.
“I haven’t been and I’m not playing as well as I’d like. But I’ve been working and kind of tweaking things here and there, just trying to figure out kind of what’s going on.’’
Thomas then offered a touch of humor to his plight, saying, “At the end of the day I’m like an iPod Nano — I just keep shuffling.’’
Bottom line for most athletes is, if their off-the-field life is in any sort of turmoil, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to perform in the arena. In the case of golfers, who compete alone on an island and cannot hide behind teammates during slumps, that element increases exponentially.
It’s no coincidence that Tiger Woods never was the same dominant player after his extramarital affair scandal broke in 2009. He was embarrassed. He knew people were seeing him in a completely different way once his imperfect personal life had been exposed for everyone to see.
Psychologically, Woods has never the same.
Thomas’ mistake pales by comparison to what Woods did, and it’s unfair to compare the two. But that doesn’t mean his psyche hasn’t been affected by this.
Last month, Thomas called his actions and the public reaction to it “humiliating’’ and “embarrassing,’’ adding, “It’s not me. It’s not a word that I use, but for some reason, it was in there. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out as to why it was in there.’’
Thomas also said, “It can go astray so fast.”
He was referring to his golf game, but that, too, can be applied to his reputation, which has been tarnished despite the fact that his conduct has been nothing short of exemplary, thoughtful and respectful throughout his career. Because of that, Thomas deserves to be cut some slack.
“I think Justin has already responded really, really well,” Rory McIlroy, one of Thomas’ close friends, said. “I think he realized he made a big mistake as soon as it was brought to him. He completely owned up to it. He said he messed up and that he’s going to try to be better. And Justin is true to his word. He will be.’’
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