By Doug Ferguson
AP Golf Writer
HONOLULU — Winning never gets old, even for the young.
That’s why Justin Thomas was mildly annoyed when one of the perks from his victory at the Sony Open vanished before his eyes. Fresh off his sweep of Hawaii, he looked up from his phone and said to his father, “320.”
The number wasn’t at all related to any of the scoring records he set at Waialae Country Club. It was the number of text messages that mysteriously got wiped out before he could even read them. It’s a safe bet they all read the same way.
Thomas, all of 23, is playing some pretty good golf.
“Pretty unbelievable what he’s doing right now,” said Jordan Spieth, who has known Thomas since they were 13. “He’s got full control of his game, full confidence, and he’s executing under pressure. It’s a lot of fun to see — stuff that myself and a lot of our peers have seen going back almost 10 years now.”
The last two weeks — really, the last three months — everyone else has started to notice.
Thomas won the CIMB Classic in Malaysia for the second straight year. During his short break from golf, he concentrated on shoring up his accuracy off the tee and his efficiency with the wedge and the putter. He showed up in Hawaii for the new year and swept both PGA Tour events convincingly — a three-shot victory over Hideki Matsuyama on Maui, a seven-shot victory over Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose on Oahu.
That led to one of two questions. Who is this guy or where was this guy?
More than just a wire-to-wire victory in the Sony Open, Thomas opened the tournament with a 59, only the eighth sub-60 round in PGA Tour history. And he never really let up until he set the 36-hole scoring record, tied the 54-hole scoring record, and tapped in for birdie on his final hole to set the 72-hole scoring record.
In two weeks on two islands, he was 49 under par.
This being the Aloha State, it’s fair to ask if this was hello or goodbye. Was this a two-week stretch in which Thomas stamped himself as a veritable rising star? Or was it simply a player riding the kind of wave found across the island on the North Shore?
Or maybe, as Spieth suggested, it’s neither.
“He’s already been there,” Spieth said. “He’s gone through the process. He’s succeeded at each level and just moved up the totem pole. When you get out to the big tour, sometimes it takes a little bit of time to win, or win in bunches.”
Spieth speaks from experience.
He won in his first year, then went through a winless PGA Tour season as a sophomore. In his third season, Spieth rocketed to the top of golf by winning the Masters and U.S. Open, chasing the Grand Slam and winning the FedEx Cup to go with his five victories.
This is the third year for Thomas. He already has won three times in five starts, as many titles as anyone captured all of last year. And it’s not even February, so maybe more great golf is on the horizon. The first major is still three months away.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a good player that’s hot, and I wouldn’t say it’s a birth of a guy, either,” Spieth said. “I would say it’s just a tremendous player who’s already been at that level. It just takes winning a couple of times, I think. Then they start to fall.”
Thomas is not lacking confidence, nor humility. He doesn’t take himself seriously, only his golf.
With a seven-shot lead going into the final round, all he heard Saturday night and all of Sunday morning was that no one had ever lost a 54-hole lead that large. It led to jangled nerves when he teed off in the final round, and even though no one ever got closer than five shots, he had one nervous moment over an 8-foot par putt on the sixth hole. Miss it and he would be 2 over for his round, his lead down to four.
He made it. After four birdies in his next six holes, the lead was up to eight and Thomas was on his way. The last birdie gave him a 72-hole score of 253, one better than the record Tommy Armour III set in 2003 at the Texas Open.
Thomas spoke confidently after he set the 36-hole record of 123 (59-64) when asked to measure how he was playing.
“I definitely haven’t shown the world my best golf,” he said.
So after setting scoring records, after posting his 12th consecutive round in the 60s worldwide (his average is 66.1 over his last three events), winning back-to-back in Hawaii and destroying his competition at Waialae, Thomas was asked if he was getting closer to his best.
“Yeah, I’m obviously playing great. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m playing OK,” he said. “I would take the golf I played the last few weeks every week I play.”