BROOKLINE, Mass. — When Phil Mickelson spoke to the media at The Country Club, the site of this week’s U.S. Open, he looked like a man with a burden on his conscience. His face was grizzled, his words were measured, and there were long pauses before he spoke. The six-time major winner looked down a lot, a classic sign of a person who feels ashamed or guilty. He was trying to say the right things and answer tough questions, but his trademark spontaneity, humor and charm were gone.
Two hours later, Justin Thomas spoke like a man whose heart was breaking.
On Sunday, Thomas was outdueled by his friend, Rory McIlroy, and finished third at the RBC Canadian Open even though he shot 63-64 over the weekend. But that performance was not putting the exasperated look on Thomas’ face or giving his voice a tinge of frustration.
“This is the U.S. Open, and this is an unbelievable venue, a place with so much history, an unbelievable field, so many storylines,” Thomas said. “And yet that seems to be what all the questions are about.”
That, of course, is the LIV Golf Invitational Series. Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and several other golfers in this week’s field competed in the breakaway tour’s first event last week outside London, and Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed have announced they are joining the LIV Series in late June when its next event takes place at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon. That means those players, major champions and stalwarts of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, will be suspended by the PGA Tour, like Mickelson and Johnson were last week, and they will not be eligible to compete in the tour’s events.
The fracturing of golf is not what Thomas wanted to discuss this week.
“That’s unfortunate. That’s not right to the USGA. That’s not right for the U.S. Open. That’s not right for us players. But that’s, unfortunately, where we’re at right now,” he said.
Along with McIlroy, Thomas, 29, has become one of the faces of the PGA Tour. The son of a PGA of America professional, Thomas appeared genuinely saddened by the players’ decision to join LIV Golf.
“I tossed and turned and lost a lot of sleep last week thinking about what could potentially happen,” he said. “I grew up my entire life wanting to play the PGA Tour, wanting to break records, make history, play Presidents Cups, play Ryder Cups. The fact that things like that could potentially get hurt because of some of the people that are leaving, and if more go, it’s just sad. It’s really no other way to say it.”
Thomas understands those thoughts need to be compartmentalized right now. The task this week demands his total focus. The Country Club will be one of the most challenging courses golfers will face all season, but Thomas’s game is sharp. In 15 starts this season, he has nine top 10s. He has power to spare, is a marksman with his irons, a wizard with wedges and is a solid putter, too. He’s also gritty, as displayed by his performance Sunday at Southern Hills, where he came from seven shots back to force a playoff with Will Zalatoris, which he won to take home his second Wannamaker trophy.
Amanda Balionis Renner congratulated McIlroy on winning his 21st PGA Tour event Sunday evening. McIlroy quickly pointed out that he now has one more PGA Tour win than Greg Norman, the LIV Golf’s commissioner. With his win at Southern Hills last month, Thomas has two career majors, which ties him with Norman, who won two British Opens.
On Sunday evening, Father’s Day, no one will be surprised if Thomas holds the U.S. Open trophy as Boston sports fans cheer. He’s a Red Sox fan, so they’ll love him here. He might not throw shade on Norman like McIlroy did, after all the PGA Tour vs. LIV Golf is not Yankees vs. Red Sox yet.
Then again, the world of golf changed a lot last week, and Thomas wasn’t too crazy about it, so time will tell.