KAPALUA, Hawaii – Hideki Matsuyama, with four wins in his previous five starts, might have arrived in Maui as the hottest player in golf, but the one guy he can’t beat is Justin Thomas.
Despite a hiccup in the middle of the back nine at Kapalua’s Plantation Course, when he let Matsuyama make up four shots in two holes, Thomas finished off the SBS Tournament of Champions Sunday, making birdie on the final two holes to pull away and become the first multiple winner in this young PGA Tour season.
A closing four-under-par 69 was good enough for a three-stroke victory over Japan’s finest player, the same margin by which Thomas beat Matsuyama in October at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. Thomas completed 72 holes in 22-under 270 for his third career victory and $1.22 million. He moved up to No. 12 in the world ranking.
He’s also well on his way to fulfilling his goals for the season after admitting that he fell far short last year.
“Yeah, it's a great feeling. I mean, obviously I stumbled more than I would have liked to on some of those holes, but I think it really shows where my game is at right now,” said Thomas, 23, of Goshen, Ky. “I had some woes there the second part of the nine, but I stuck it out to still get it done.”
Even with two double bogeys and a triple bogey during the week, defending champion Jordan Spieth tied for third with Ryan Moore and Pat Perez at 16-under 276, thanks to a closing bogey-free eight-under 65, which tied Jimmy Walker for low round of the tournament.
Thomas, who shared the second-round lead with Ryan Moore, came into Sunday’s final round with a two-stroke advantage and, and by the 13th hole his lead was five strokes at 22 under par. But Matsuyama chipped in for eagle on the short par-4 14th, and then things got dicier on the par-5 15th when Thomas “chunk-hooked" his 4-iron approach into the hazard, leading to a double bogey.
Matsuyama could have tied things on the next but left a 10-foot birdie putt short. He never got closer as Thomas regained control.
“Like I told Jimmy [Johnston, his caddie] walking up to 17 tee, I was like, we would have taken this spot before the week started,” Thomas said. “I was still playing great. I was hitting a lot of good shots. It was just a lot slimmer lead than it could have been.”
Thomas responded at the 17th with a clutch 8-iron from 193 yards to three feet. “Definitely the best shot I hit this week,” he said. Matsuyama aided the cause with his third three-putt of the round, allowing Thomas to play the 18th comfortably.
“I swang it really well this week, and, hopefully, I can take that into next week. I just need to make a couple more putts,” said Matsuyama, who closed with a 70. “I tipped my hat to Justin. He played well all day long. He deserved it.”
“Yeah, I think it's potentially floodgates opening for him [Thomas],” said Spieth, who waited greenside at 18 to congratulate his friend when it was over. “The guy hits it forever. He's got a really, really nifty short game. He manages the course well. He used to hit more drivers, and he's dialing back a bit now and hitting like a trusty 2-iron out there that he can still hit 285 yards, you know, with a little bit of roll. So, really excited for him. It's awesome. It's awesome to see. He's going to be tough to beat next week, too.”
Spieth, among others, has been an inspiration of sorts to Thomas in recent months, making him feel like a bit of an underachiever. Sheepishly, Thomas agreed that the success of his friends has been a spur to him.
“I think it drove me a lot,” Thomas said. “It's weird, I mean, some of my good friends, I mean, I'm … trying to think how I'm going to word this. I wasn't mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating sometimes seeing some friends and peers my age do well. Not because I wasn't cheering for them, because I feel like I was as good as them. It's just immature of me. I mean, the fact of the matter is, over the course of a long career, we're going to beat each other. That's just how it is.”
Thomas is merely enjoying getting beat less often. The victory was his first in the U.S. after his consecutive CIMB Classic titles. “Apparently, I have to fly at least 12 hours to win on the PGA Tour,” he joked.
Predictably, his confidence is soaring.
“Winning twice in the first four events sounds nice now that I’ve said it,” Thomas said, smiling broadly. “This week, there's just something about it. I feel like my game is in a better … I was in better form. I think now I feel so much more comfortable.
"I just feel like, maybe the first time in Malaysia when I won, I was maybe kind of like, ‘What am I doing here?’ But now it's like, ‘OK, I belong here, I should be here.’ Now use the past experiences to my advantage and kind of go from there.”