What can Justin Thomas do for an encore in 2018?
No longer second fiddle to lifetime friend Jordan Spieth, although he’s still ranked one spot behind him, Thomas won PGA Player of the Year honors in 2017 and jumped from 22nd in the official world golf rankings (OWGR) up to third.
A year ago, Thomas was a 1-time tour winner who successfully defended his crown at the CIMB Classic, shooting bookend 64s to defeat Hideki Matsuyama by three strokes.
When the 2017 season started in earnest, he stayed hot, much to the disappointment of Matsuyama, defeating the Japanese superstar by three strokes again at the SBS Tournament of Champions, his first eye-catching win of his professional career.
Just a week later, his name was on the lips of every golf fan in the world as he became just the seventh player in the history of the PGA Tour to shoot a 59, doing so at the first round of the Sony Open in Hawaii. Starting on the back nine, he began the day with an eagle 2, then actually bogeyed the second hole. He recovered to fire five birdies on the final six holes of the back nine to reach the turn with a 6-under 29. The 59 (or better) seemed inevitable when he birdied #1, #2 and #4 to start the front nine to reach 9-under, but then he recorded an eagle on No. 9 to finish with a 59. He followed that with rounds of 64, 65 and 65 to finish 27-under, a new PGA Tour record. He won the event by seven strokes over Justin Rose.
Thomas wouldn’t win another tournament until August, but he kept his name fresh by finishing tied for fifth at the WGC-Mexico Championship; tied for fifth at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans; and tied for fourth at the Memorial.
At the US Open, Thomas was tied for 24th after two rounds, then fired a US Open-record 63 (-9) in the third round, rocketing up to a tie for second place, one stroke behind leader Brian Harman. His first Major would have to wait a while as Thomas bombed out with a 75 on Sunday, dropping to a tie for ninth and having to “settle” for a $279,524 paycheck.
Thomas struggled mightily over the rest of the summer, missing three straight cuts including at The Open Championship where he shot an ugly second-round 80. All that was forgotten at the PGA Championship in August.
It looked like another rough outing for Thomas, who was 6 strokes off the lead after a round. He didn’t fall apart, firing a second-round 66, the second-best score of the round, to get back to 3-under and tie for seventh, 5 strokes behind co-leaders Matsuyama and Kevin Kisner.
A third-round 69, on a day that saw most scores in the 70s, got Thomas to a tie for fourth at 5-under, two strokes behind Kisner. A title looked unlikely for most of Sunday. Through six holes he was at 4-under, three strokes behind Kisner and two behind Matsuyama. The next six holes changed the course of the tournament as Thomas birdied #7, #9, #10 and #13. Meanwhile Matsuyama bogeyed three straight holes and Kisner bogeyed two. Headed to the 14th, Thomas was at 8-under, two strokes ahead of four other golfers.
Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed, Matsuyama and Kisner all closed within a stroke with birdies on No. 15, but Thomas never wavered. He birdied 17 to get the lead to two strokes over Reed and needed only bogey No. 18 to win his first career Major and a $1.89 million payday.
Now the leader in the FedEx Cup standings, Thomas cemented his banner year by finishing sixth at the Northern Trust, then winning the Dell Technologies Championship by three strokes over Spieth. He left the door open for the competition by finishing 47th at the BMW Championship, then rallied to take second at the TOUR Championship to clinch the overall FedEx title. He earned $9.921 million in prize money plus the $10 million FedEx bonus.
Thomas joined Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only golfers to win five tournaments including a Major , before the age of 25.