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Justin Thomas: Irons in the Fire

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
Justin Thomas is more than just an elite golfer. He opened up to Boardroom about his business endeavors and foray into golf design.

In one of the opening scenes in the first episode of Netflix’s popular golf docudrama Full Swing, Justin Thomas and his BFF Jordan Spieth are on a private jet, passing the time by shuffling a deck and playing ‘guess the card’ for $1,000 per flip.

It turns out gin is more of their go-to game these days and the cash exchanged — mainly to keep things interesting — tends to even out in the end.

“We’ve had thousands exchange hands before but we try to keep it friendly between us two. We still want to not hate each other at the end of the day,” Thomas told Boardroom. 

It’s a mature perspective for the 30-year-old. Thomas’s age in pro golf years is still on the low end, but the green-finding cheat code is now a known commodity. It’d be wrong to think of him as part of the game’s new guard.

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Since turning pro a decade ago, Thomas has accrued over $53 million inside the ropes — that’s tenth on the all-time PGA Tour earnings leaderboard. The fire in the belly of the future Hall of Famer, whose career highlight reel includes a pair of majors, a Players Championship triumph, a FedEx Cup title, and a healthy dollop of Ryder and Presidents Cup squad glory, still burns bright. He’s more eager to keep improving and win more tournaments than to reminisce on the eventfulness of the past.

“It’s something you can definitely make a lot more out of than it is,” Thomas said about leaving his twenties behind. 

Thomas has been laser-focused on sharpening his golf game since he was a gawky Kentucky kid bashing bucket after bucket of balls at Harmony Landing in Louisville, where his father, Mike, worked as a PGA teaching professional.

That’s also where his golf course architecture roots were formed as he’d scrawl make-believe golf holes on the back of napkins.

Course Design

At Panther National, the centerpiece of a luxe golf community sprouting up in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, those early drafts of fantasy fairways and greens are becoming reality as Thomas earns his first design credit, working alongside Jack Nicklaus. When Swiss-based Centaur Group pitched him on the idea of tag-teaming with the game’s GOAT on the project, Thomas leaped at the opportunity, describing it as a “pinch-me type moment.”

“I was very, very humbled and it was 100% a yes,” Thomas said.

He’s been like a sponge ever since, soaking up the Golden Bear’s decades of design knowledge at every turn.

“There’s a lot of things that go into it,” Thomas said. “It’s not just ‘here’s a piece of land and we can do whatever we want with wherever we want and put in whatever we want.’ Every piece of dirt you move, every bunker you make, every lake you make, every waterfall, whatever it is, it costs money, it costs time, and a lot goes into it. More than anything I’ve just enjoyed listening and understanding what all goes into it.”

Jack may have over 300 courses on JT, but Thomas has certainly not shied away from taking initiative. When Thomas first laid eyes on No. 11, a downhill 650-yard whopper, he caught a major flaw. A creek, out of view from the back tees, was hampering player options. To reach the green, they would have no choice but to hit back-to-back 3-woods before firing at the green from a 100 or so yards in.

“Funny enough, it was the first hole that I saw and I didn’t really like it at all to be honest,” he said. “To me it didn’t have much variety or very many options to play, especially being a par 5. It essentially was just a 100-120-yard par 3 because you couldn’t get there in two. Everybody was going be laying up to a big fairway. To me it just kind of felt like a wasted hole.

“The amount of money was astronomical to push this creek back. And I joked, ‘are you guys sure you want me to keep coming out here, I’m not off to a great start?’ But it’s created what arguably could end up being one of the signature holes on the course.”

The Skin He’s In

When Justin Thomas plays in pro-ams, which pair recreational golfers with professionals, his playing partners tend to ask him about the scar on his left calf. Four years ago, he spotted a mole on his leg that looked off and made a beeline to his dermatologist’s office to check it out. Just hours later, doctors confirmed that his concern was warranted. It turned out to be melanoma.

“I was 25 years old when I was diagnosed and had the cancer taken out of my leg — that’s very rare for someone at my age,” Thomas said.

They caught it early before it had a chance to spread, and the surgery was successful. If you watch a lot of golf on television, you’ll notice that Thomas reapplies sunscreen during a round, and he’s not spraying Coppertone or lathering up with Neutrogena, either. Last summer, he launched a sun care line to spread awareness for skin cancer prevention with a name that is itself a call to action. WearSPF, which is available online and in a growing list of pro shops at golf courses, protects against harmful UVA and UVB rays. A portion of the proceeds goes towards the Justin Thomas Foundation, which supports charities that help military families, junior golf, and children in need.

“I want to use my story to benefit everybody else so they understand how serious this is,” he said. My doctor told me I was months away from being a patient in a hospital. Whether it’s through that story or someone else’s, if we’re able to use that to influence hundreds of thousands and millions of lives, then that’s an unbelievable thing. That what we’re striving for.”

The Skin in the Game

Justin Thomas values his time, and when it comes to his business dealings, he’d much rather be an equity investor and have skin in the game as an owner than to simply come in to a deal as a pitchman. This is why he was part of Whoop’s $100-million Series E funding round and took an ownership stake in both Panther National and Greyson Clothiers.

“I’m at a point in my life and career now where whether I’m going to be out there wearing clothes or if I’m going to be out there pushing something, then I want to truly be a part of the company. I can’t necessarily say anything bad about it or complain about it if I’m not at the table, or at least at one of the tables that’s close to the table,” he said.

Since he began repping Charlie Schaefer’s fashion-forward brand that has broadened his style game to include tight joggers, knit hoodies and printed polos, the compliments have started pouring in.

“My caddie Bones is actually who pointed it out,” Thomas said. “He’s like, ‘I’ve never heard people give that many compliments about clothes to a player.’ Usually, you’re getting something ridiculous yelled at you or what not. That alone is unique, but Charlie has such a creative mind and he and his team do such a good job of looking outside the box and understanding fashion trends, what people like to wear, and morphing the two.”

Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay gets kudos for club selection, green reads and all manner of on-course counsel when he’s on JT’s bag. But when it comes to a second opinion on business decision, Thomas has another caddie for that.

“I talk to Todd Wagner,” Thomas said. “He was Mark Cuban’s partner when he started Broadcast.com. He’s a great guy. I stay with him every year when I play the Valspar. He’s someone who is obviously extremely wealthy, but he’s also not only wealthy due to the businesses he’s been a part of, but he’s extremely smart with his money and he is invested very well. If I’m ever unsure after talking to my team and my financial team manager, I always know that I can talk with him or ask him his opinion and he’ll give me some great advice.”

While it may appear that Thomas has an ever-increasing number of irons in the fire, he is deliberate when it comes to adding anything to his plate that could hinder his singular pursuit of playing elite-level golf. As long as a new venture that he believes in doesn’t create a distraction from that goal, he’s fully in.

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