Out then in, in then out: Inside Justin Thomas’ crazy Sunday ride as the FedEx Cup Playoffs Electric Bubble Man

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Greensboro, N.C. — If you want to understand the absurdity of Justin Thomas’ mad dash for the FedEx Cup Playoffs at the Wyndham Championship on Sunday, consider the fact that after making par on the 17th hole, but before teeing off on 18—somewhere in his walk between holes—he slipped from 70th in the playoff standings to 71st. The former makes the playoffs, the latter does not.

If you want to understand the delirious drama of the day and the week, though, you only had to watch his second and third shots on the 18th hole. The former was a massive hook off the pine straw from 183 yards, through trees, the ball trying to run up the front of the green after Thomas’ tee shot found the left trees. The latter was a pitch from 34 yards that hit the hole and did everything but go in. The former saw him conclude his swing by spinning on one leg like a primo ballerina before dashing to the fairway to see the result. The latter concluded with him falling on his back, face stuck in a rictus of despair. Not long after he tapped in for his par, the weather horn blew, and you almost got the sense that Thomas invoked the storms himself.

After hours of uncertainty, the ending was anticlimactic: It didn’t happen. The players remaining on the course didn’t miss what they needed to miss, and he stayed right there in 71st place, one spot to the bad after finishing the tournament in a tie for 12th with a closing 68 leaving him one shot short. But to JT, we issue the following statement: The golf fans of America invite you to come back to the bubble any old time you want.

From the very start of the week, Thomas was one of the more intriguing characters in Greensboro. Along with fighting for a playoff berth at the last event of the regular season, there was the backdrop context of the Ryder Cup, and whether JT could “do enough” at this potentially last start of the 2022-23 season to impress Zach Johnson and earn a captain’s pick—or at least give himself a chance to prove it in future weeks. That created a surreal kind of environment en route to making the cut, and on Saturday, after a 66, he described the nerves of playing for the future as unlike anything he’d experienced before.

Thomas hovered at 72nd in the FedEx Cup standings heading into Sunday, and after more or less holding serve for 14 holes, he finally made the great leap with an eagle on 15 to vault to 70th. He promptly gave a shot back on 16, which didn’t immediately cost him his spot, but he slipped outside the bubble sometime before the manic drama on 18.

The thing is, it was hard to decipher why he fell out (probably Adam Svensson making a birdie, and Thomas slipping from T-10 to T-11) or what had to happen after he finished to get him back inside the bubble (probably Svensson making bogey). The standings and their fluctuations don’t present a clean story; each player’s position is dependent on a series of interrelated permutations that constantly change on the leaderboard, and there’s rarely a point where you can narrow the possibilities down to a single outcome. And with the gray skies moving in over Greensboro, it suddenly seemed possible that Thomas’ fate wouldn’t be known for another day.

As the clouds blotted out the afternoon daylight, he spoke to the media and got technical on his shot from the woods on 18.

“Being in the pine straw is a good thing in terms of needing to work the ball,” he said, “so I just tried to hook it as much as I could … an 8-iron I didn’t know if I could get there, but I knew that the loft would help me hook it enough being uphill. But when I hit it, I actually thought it had a chance to land near the front of the green and chase back to the hole, which my greedy self was trying to do. But I knew that that was going to be in a good spot short of the green to where I could get it up and down.”

More broadly, and even amid the playoff uncertainty, Thomas’ mentality seemed to have improved by leaps and bounds over the almost bedraggled mindset that has defined the struggles of this season.

“I’m back to me again,” he said. “Personally, I thought today was harder than winning a golf tournament. If you don’t win a golf tournament, you finish whatever you finish, you learn from it, you go to the next week. Whereas if I fail here, my season’s done. So I definitely felt more nerves that last day and a half than I have trying to win golf tournaments. But I felt like I handled it really, really well.”

He was less pleased about a shift in the wind on 16—”I got screwed,” he said—but in general he felt optimistic about the action to come.

“I know this game doesn’t owe you anything,” he said, “but I really felt like I fought hard enough to deserve it.”

The skies broke, the rain fell, everyone went indoors. And with the hope that the leaders would complete their final four holes before darkness halted proceedings, Thomas waited to see not what he deserved, but whether the universe cared; whether fortune favored the bold.

In this case, it did not. Or at least not immediately. JT will not be going to the Playoffs. But sometimes big changes take time to reveal themselves, and Thomas’ payoff could come far outside Greensboro. Like, say, halfway across the world, just outside Rome, Italy.

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