Column: Thomas embarks on sequel to sensational year
The sequel is never easy.
Making it even more difficult on Justin Thomas is that he had two days between accepting the Jack Nicklaus Award as the PGA Tour player of the year and getting on a plane for Malaysia to start a new season.
He has won the last two times at the CIMB Classic. His expectations are lower this year for appropriate reasons.
Thomas hasn’t had time to catch his breath, much less exhale, following a frenetic and fabulous end to his season. He closed with a 66 at the Tour Championship to capture the FedEx Cup, and then he flew straight to New York for his debut in the Presidents Cup, where he went 3-1-1 in a resounding American victory.
“It’s going to be a little bit different this year, just in terms of everything that’s happened and kind of the lack of preparation I’ll probably get as opposed to years prior,” Thomas said last week.
He will make one more stop next week in South Korea for the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges before a five-week break to digest and reassess.
A year ago, Thomas had one victory in his 64 starts as a pro on the PGA Tour. He was No. 35 in the world and still being referred to as “Jordan Spieth’s friend” whenever he was shown on TV.
Now he’s trying to figure out how high to set the bar.
Along with five victories and his first major, the 24-year-old Thomas burnished his reputation for explosive scoring with a 59 and the 72-hole scoring record on the PGA Tour during his seven-shot victory at the Sony Open, and a 63 at the U.S. Open. Along the way, he staked his claim to being a key figure in the one of the deepest youth movements golf has ever seen.
Expectations will be high. Comparisons will be unavoidable.
Competition figures to be strong as ever.
In just three full years on the PGA Tour, Thomas already has six victories including a major and is No. 4 in the world. Now consider Spieth, who is three months younger than Thomas and already has three legs of the career Grand Slam among his 11 tour victories.
Do not overlook Rory McIlroy, who only seems old at 28. Hideki Matsuyama, 25, briefly had the lead on Sunday at the PGA Championship. He was that close to being talked about the way Thomas is now.
Winning player of the year was not among the goals Thomas wrote down at the start of last season, and it probably won’t be on this year’s list. It’s a byproduct of great play, and sometimes even that isn’t enough.
“I know how hard it is to do because of how deep the tour is right now and how many great players there are and how guys are winning three, four, five times a year every year,” he said. “And it’s something that’s going to be tough to replicate. But I’m definitely going to give it my best.”
From 1981 through 2014, only three players won at least five times on the PGA Tour in one season — Nick Price, Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods (who did it 10 times). Over the last three seasons, Spieth, Thomas and Jason Day have won five times.
Did anyone see this coming from Thomas a year ago?
Spieth wasn’t much different. He had only one PGA Tour victory going into the season when he won five times, including two majors, and the FedEx Cup.
“I can only imagine what the kids are going through today at 15 to 21, watching Jordan and Justin and Hideki,” Pat Perez said at the Tour Championship. “All these kids that are coming up are going, ‘Man, I’ve got to be that or I’m not going to be that great, because these guys are doing it now and I’m not doing it.’”
Perez came through at a different time. There was greatness, but the source was limited.
“I had Tiger, and that was what everybody had to compete with,” Perez said. “That was just one. And you knew you were going to lose to him at least nine times a year, which was fine because that gave you a lot of other tournaments that you could win. Now any of these kids can win. They’re winning 15, 16 times a year combined. That doesn’t leave a whole lot left.”
He was exaggerating, but not by much. Thomas, Spieth, Matsuyama and Dustin Johnson combined for 15 victories and two majors. The year before, Johnson and Day each won three times, while Spieth and McIlroy were among those who won twice.
Thomas is used to the competition, with so many familiar faces from junior golf.
“There’s so many young guys that haven’t quite won yet, haven’t quite broke out,” he said. “It’s just crazy, it really is. And we just continue to push each other so hard, and we’ve done it for so long. It’s just now we’re at the top of the top in terms of the level of golf.”
Getting to the top is hard. Staying there is even harder.