Justin Thomas knew he was playing well enough to start the year with a victory in the SBS Tournament of Champions.
He just didn’t expect to have to play so many good shots in the end to win.
Even on Maui, life can move pretty fast.
Thomas had a five-shot lead with five holes to play when he holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole. Three holes later, he stood on the edge of the 16th green and watched Hideki Matsuyama stand over a 10-foot birdie putt that would have tied him for the lead.
Asked if there was ever a time in his golfing life that he feared blowing a tournament, Thomas replied, “Today count? ”
The thought didn’t linger.
He told his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, as they walked to the 17th tee that he would have gladly taken a one-shot lead with two holes to play before the tournament started. Thomas then hit an 8-iron from 214 yards so pure that he stopped to admire it as it settled 3 feet away for birdie, and he closed by smashing a 369-yard drive — his 10th tee shot of at least 350 yards for the week — that set up a simple two-putt birdie for a 4-under 69.
He wound up with a three-shot victory over Matsuyama that made him sweat a little more than he imagined Sunday at Kapalua. He won for the third time in his third season on the PGA Tour, and they all have one thread.
“I apparently have to fly at least 12 hours to get a win on the PGA Tour,” Thomas said.
His other two victories were in Malaysia each of the last two years at the CIMB Classic. The one difference at Kapalua was that his parents were there to see it for the first time. Mike Thomas is the longtime head pro at Harmony Landing outside Louisville, Kentucky, and still his coach.
His mother, Jani, was in tears. No surprise there.
“I definitely made them stress a little bit more than probably they would have liked,” Thomas said. “But yeah, I love having them there. ”
The first PGA Tour of the new year didn’t feel much differently from the old year.
Matsuyama had won three straight tournaments — and four of his last five — coming into Kapalua. Thomas was the only player who had beaten him dating to his Oct. 16 victory in the Japan Open.
The 24-year-old from Japan appeared to have taken himself out of contention with two soft bogeys on the front and losing ground early on the front nine. But players who are on a winning streak find a way to get in the mix, and Matsuyama was no exception.
It started with his eagle on the 14th to get within three shots. Matsuyama could have done a little more to squeeze Thomas.
Thomas avoided one big mistake on the ninth hole when he snap-hooked a tee shot into the native grass. Not only did a TV spotter locate the ball, it was sitting high enough above the roots to hack it out into the fairway, and he escaped with par.
He wasn’t so fortunate on the 15th when he hit a fat hook with a 4-iron into the hazard, left his wedge short of the green and made double bogey. Matsuyama missed a 10-foot birdie putt that would have tied it. And he missed the 10-footer on 16 that would have tied it.
And on the 17th, after Thomas stuffed the 8-iron into 3 feet, Matsuyama went after a 30-foot putt knowing he had to make it to stay in the game. It ran 8 feet by the hole, he missed that one to take bogey and the game was over.
“Justin had a little trouble at 15 and then I was really in it,” Matsuyama said. “But my putter let me down there at 16, 17 and 18. ”
Thomas, who finished at 22-under 270, moved to No. 12 in the world.
Defending champion Jordan Spieth got through a round without a big number and closed with a 65 to tie for third with Ryan Moore and Pat Perez. It also enabled him to stay at No. 5 by a fraction over Matsuyama.
Spieth and Thomas first met 10 years ago on the junior circuit and have been close friends ever since. Spieth and Jimmy Walker were by the 18th to congratulate Thomas, and Spieth told him, “Go sign your card. ”
“I think it’s potentially floodgates opening,” Spieth said of Thomas’ victory. “The guy hits it forever. He’s got a really, really nifty short game. He manages the course well. He’s playing the golf course the way it should be played, and honestly, he’s taking advantage of the easier holes.
“It’s awesome to see,” Spieth said. “He’s going to be tough to beat next week, too. “