Thomas aims for three-peat
Player of year back in Malaysia where he 1st won
Whatever the reason, Justin Thomas has a thing for Malaysia.
He won his first PGA Tour title there, setting a tournament-record low of 26-under-par 262 and posting a course-record 61 in the 2015 CIMB Classic at TPC Kuala Lumpur. He won his second Tour title on the same ground a year later when he played his last 23 holes in 13 under.
Perhaps it’s the food, the course, the city itself, the tournament hotel. Or maybe the weather. Or the collective sum of many parts. But even Thomas can’t put a finger on why he’ll go for a three-peat this week in the second event of the 2017-18 season.
“I really don’t know why,” Thomas, 24, said a few days before boarding his cross-the-globe flight to Asia, which came just a few days after the reigning PGA Tour player of the year put a bow on his 2016-17 season with a superb stint in The Presidents Cup.
Neither does his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, who was on the bag when Steve Stricker became the last player to three-peat in the 2011 John Deere Classic.
“There is a reason, but I don’t know what it is,” Johnson said. “I just think the course suits his eye, because when we get there, he just starts driving the ball really well for some reason. He has a lot of wedges in his hands, and he’s great with wedges.”
Thomas agreed with that. And the two tacked on another reason.
Toward the end of Thomas’ solid yet winless rookie campaign, he hired Johnson. At the time, impatience was far too often Thomas’ 15th club, especially while seeing good friends Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler enjoy so much success. But Johnson knew — as did Thomas — that once he closed out a tournament, the flood gates might open and patience would be a strength.
“It was easy to get impatient with myself, but my dad does a great job of reminding me I’ve done a lot of great things, and I will continue to do a lot of great things if I continue to work hard and continue to do the right things,” Thomas said.
The work paid off in the last round of the CIMB Classic in 2015, when he rebounded from hitting a ball into the water on the 14th hole with three birdies to secure his first title. And patience proved pivotal a year later in Kuala Lumpur in his title defense.
“He was 4-over par on Saturday in the last group after 13 holes, and we just had a talk, and I said, ‘You know what? You never know when you can get your birdies,’ ” Johnson said. “And he birdied the last five holes. We were nine behind before that, and he didn’t panic. He was a better player; he was better at handling his emotions. And he put the accelerator down, shot 64 in the last round and won by three.”
He kept his foot floored for most of the rest of the season, too. The repeat victory in Malaysia triggered a season that included winning five Tour titles, including his first major in the PGA Championship with a brilliant back nine on the final day; capturing the FedExCup and shooting 59 en route to victory in the Sony Open, where he also shot a four-day total of 253 to set a Tour record. He also established the record for lowest round in relation to par in a major with a 9-under 63 in the U.S. Open.
Now the world No. 4 could have his patience tested as he tries to repeat his supreme campaign. As he accepted the FedExCup trophy at The Tour Championship, Thomas revealed a screen shot on his iPhone of his 2016-17 goals. From winning a major, to making The Presidents Cup team, to winning multiple times, he achieved most everything on the list.
As he headed to Malaysia, he had yet to make a list for 2017-18. He said he’ll spend time talking with Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Spieth about resetting goals after a great year. He’ll come up with a list — and then go to work.
“It’s going to be a tough year, a different year, but I’ll do everything I can to have another great year,” Thomas said.
He’s in the perfect place to start.
Making The Presidents Cup team was a 2016-17 goal for Justin Thomas.