Ben Everill on PGA TOUR, 06 January 2020: Justin Thomas looked anything but a winner.
Slumped in the interview chair. Tired. A little dishevelled. Without a smile.
The only clue he’d just won for the 12th time on the PGA TOUR was the beautiful glass trophy shaped in a wave with a whale tail diving in sitting on the floor next to him.
Thomas had, in fact, just won the Sentry Tournament of Champions, for the second time no less, to take ownership as the most prolific TOUR winner of those in their 20s. It took three extra holes, but he had indeed prevailed over Patrick Reed and Xander Schauffele.
An intense final hour saw nerves jangling in Kapalua
He could be forgiven for his lethargy. The final few hours of a tough week which included wild winds and weather throughout were brutal on his nerves. He’d looked anything but a winner on the last few holes in regulation and even early in the playoff, just as he did now. And the emotional rollercoaster had worn him down. It’s hard to fathom your achievements in those circumstances so instantaneously.
Earlier he had looked a winner for sure. Starting the day one back of Schauffele, he wrestled the lead at the ninth hole as he went through a stretch of four straight birdies (8-11) to extend his buffer. The lead was two with three holes to play, but a bogey on 16 cut it in half.
Still, on the last, the par-5 finisher, Thomas had a one-shot advantage. He hit a poor drive but then inexplicably hit his second shot into the penalty area when he could have laid up safely. When he missed his eight-foot par putt, he thought it was over.
But Schauffele missed from closer and a playoff it would be. He dodged Reed missing putts to win on the first and second playoff holes before making birdie on the third to clinch.
“The emotions and how I was winning and then I was barely winning and then I was losing and then I barely got in a playoff… that takes a lot out of you. I probably don’t seem as elated as I might be or as I would hope to be,” Thomas confirmed.
“But it’ll just take a little bit. Once I get back to the hotel hopefully with my family, I’ll be able to enjoy it a little bit and we’ll talk about it. But relief is definitely a word that comes to mind.
“I truly felt like through 15 holes it was one of the best rounds I had played. I was in such control tee to green. I was putting it beautifully, my irons were awesome, and I hit a really good drive on 16, just the wind took it more, and then 18 was just a disaster. I really didn’t hit very many good shots on the hole. But it worked out.”
Thomas finds some elite company with victory
In winning, Thomas rocketed to the top of the FedExCup standings. He joined Tiger Woods (34) and Jack Nicklaus (20) as the only players with 12 or more PGA TOUR wins before the age of 27 in the last 60 years. It is his second win this season, and third, in his last six TOUR starts.
And he joined Stuart Appleby (3), Geoff Ogilvy (2) and Dustin Johnson (2) as multiple winners of the Sentry Tournament of Champions since the event moved to The Plantation Course at Kapalua in 1999.
Thomas had started the week saying he was disappointed he hadn’t won more. Now he is on his way to rectifying that.
“It means a lot. A decent amount of them I got fortunate like I did today. That’s what happens when you win. Stuff goes your way,” Thomas said.
“It’s not supposed to be that hard. I know it’s hard, but I made it about five times as hard as it needed to be. Obviously you have to play well and make some putts and hit some shots, but at the end of the day, you need stuff to go your way, and it definitely did today, and it feels great.
“It’s another one down. I want to keep building on that, and I feel like I’m really just trying to get better every year, and we’re improving in some of the right areas. Next week we will try to get to 13.”
Of course the last time he won at Kapalua, in 2017, he almost let it slip to Hideki Matsuyama. But he went to the Sony Open and started with a 59. He would win that event with a record-low score. Perhaps if he recreates that, we might see a bigger grin.