PGA TOUR Release, 16 August 2019: Justin Thomas had what he called the worst warm-up of his life, then shot 65 – with a tidy 24 putts – to tie the course record at Medinah and take the early first-round lead at the BMW Championship.
Given that Thomas calls this a “weird” and “odd” season, maybe that’s fitting.
“I couldn’t hit the ball,” the 2017 FedExCup champion and Player of the Year said of his pre-round warm-up. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
Thomas hit nine of 14 fairways and 12 greens in regulation, but was a perfect six-for-six in scrambling. His last hole was emblematic of his day, as his third shot from the greenside bunker clanked off the flagstick and left him a par putt of just over four feet, which he made.
If he remains atop the leaderboard, Thomas is projected to jump to No. 1 in the FedExCup.
If it seems like you haven’t heard much from Thomas lately, that’s because you haven’t. He has played well, coming in at 15th in the FedExCup. He just hasn’t won. Fair or not, that’s a glaring omission for a guy who won eight times in 2017 and ’18.
The difference this season? A wrist injury that sidelined him for part of April and all of May.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s been an odd season just because I’ve missed three tournaments,” Thomas said. “But the difference with this season is and any other season is I’d won. I’m playing every bit as good as I have any other year, that’s for sure.”
Thomas racked up top-10 finishes in five of his first seven starts this season, but appeared to hurt his wrist hitting a tree at The Honda Classic, where he finished T30. More lackluster results followed before he shut it down after finishing T12 at the Masters Tournament. His right wrist, where at times he’s worn a brace, needed a break.
After missing the PGA Championship and two other starts, he returned to the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, but missed the cut. He also missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach but began to climb back at The Open Championship (T11), the World Golf Championships – FedEx St. Jude Invitational (T12) and THE NORTHERN TRUST (T12).
He appeared to be as sharp as ever Thursday at Medinah, when concerns about his wrist took a back seat to concerns about his poor warm-up.
“I didn’t know what it was going to do,” Thomas said. “I didn’t know how I was going to hit it, and my dad and Jimmy (Johnson, his caddie) and I just kind of said that we were going to have to guess out there and just try to find something.
“I’ve had that happen plenty of times,” he added, “just not quite that extreme. I’m usually pretty good at finding my way around a golf course and finding something, but definitely didn’t expect that today.”
At No. 32 in the FedExCup rankings, Jason Kokrak is within shouting distance of his first trip to the TOUR Championship. But he doesn’t want to know the scenarios needed to make it to East Lake.
“You know, I thought about doing some number crunching and seeing what I had to finish,” Kokrak said, “but I think playing golf, putting myself in a good position to win a golf tournament, is going to get the job done.
“I don’t think I need to worry about where I need to finish in the tournament. I’d rather go out and try to win.”
So far so good. Kokrak’s 7-under 65 Thursday at the BMW Championship gave him a share of the lead with 2017 FedExCup champ Justin Thomas.
Kokrak has made the Playoffs six previous times, with his best finish in 2016 at 33rd in the standings. Of the players in this week’s field, only Ian Poulter (11 previous appearances) and Vaughn Taylor (eight previous appearances) have more Playoffs appearances than Kokrak without a trip to the TOUR Championship.
If he wins, Kokrak is projected to move to third in FedExCup points, which not only would send him to East Lake but put him in terrific shape to chase the FedExCup and its $15 million prize.
And if he doesn’t win? According to the scenarios, Kokrak needs a solo 17th or better to climb inside the top 30.
Hmm, hopefully Kokrak didn’t read the previous sentence.
Sabbatini eyes East Lake return
In case this comes up on your next Trivia Night: Name the first player to post top-10 finishes in each event of the FedExCup Playoffs.
Raise your hand if you answered Rory Sabbatini.
It happened in the inaugural FedExCup year of 2007. Sabbatini had finishes of solo third, T-6th, T-10th and T-9th in the four Playoffs events, leaving him fourth overall in the final standings.
Since then, just seven other players have managed top-10 finishes in each Playoffs event in a single year (none, interestingly enough, ever won the FedExCup that season). Of course, it might be a bit easier this year with the Playoffs now reduced to three events.
So 2007 remains the high point of Sabbatini’s FedExCup career. In fact, it’s the only time he’s reached the TOUR Championship in the FedExCup era.
He’d like to end that drought this week at the BMW Championship. He took a solid first step with a bogey-free 5-under 67 on Thursday at Medinah, leaving him inside the top 10 of the first-round leaderboard.
At 45th in the FedExCup standings, Sabbatini likely needs to finish seventh or better at the BMW to climb inside the top 30.
“It’s a challenge this week and I know there are some guys that are right on the cusp and they’re going to be stressing,” he said. “I’m kind of in that nice little slot where I can kind of be aggressive and try to make a move and let them stress over it a little bit more than I do.
“It’s a good start but I’ve got three days of hard work to do.”
Thursday’s round is reflective of the renaissance season Sabbatini is having. He has six top-10s – his most since that 2007 season when he had 10 – and is finally seeing the results of a rebuilt putting style. He’s 61st in Strokes Gained: Putting this season after ranking 98th last year and 169th, 184th, 13th and 148th the four years before that.
On Thursday, Sabbatini rolled in his first two birdie attempts from 11 feet and 21-/2 feet and also made two more birdie putts outside 10 feet just before the turn.
“It always seemed to be a lacking spot in my game,” he said. “When I’ve putted well, it’s gone well. When I haven’t putted well, I’ve struggled. I’ve definitely made that more consistent, and that’s taken the pressure off the rest of my game.”
It also helps that he’s healthier now than the previous three seasons, having been able to solve some crippling back issues. Add it up, and he says this is “probably the first time in many years I’ve actually played to my potential.”
He’d like to turn that potential into his first visit to East Lake in a dozen years.