To our knowledge, no official survey was taken, but had players, analysts, and fans alike been polled before the beginning of the Sentry Tournament of Champions, the PGA Tour’s opening event of the 2020 calendar year, Justin Thomas very likely would have been the consensus pick for the golfer likely to win the most over the new decade.
Well, the 26-year-old star athlete and world No. 4 ranked golfer got his 2020s off to a storybook start, taking the Tournament of Champions by outlasting two other highly-ranked players in an exhausting three-hole playoff that very nearly required a Monday finish.
It was nowhere near easy, although it was appropriate in a sports weekend that saw two of the four NFL playoff wildcard games need overtime, but the exceptionally skillful Thomas was able to notch the 12th victory of his still-young PGA Tour career, joining legends Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Sam Snead on the short list of players to reach that mark before the age of 27.
The ending of the event, which took place on the Plantation Course at Maui’s exotic Kapalua Resort, was amazing, but even Thomas knew the extra holes should not have been necessary.
Thomas went into the final round trailing defending tournament champion Xander Schauffele by a single stroke, and was brilliant for most of the day. He overtook Schauffele for the lead after a birdie on the ninth hole, his second birdie in a mid-round stretch of four in a row. When he added two additional birdies on 14 and 15, his lead was two with three to go.
However, that is when things got difficult. Battling surprisingly-strong winds, Thomas bogeyed 16, which cut the lead back to one stroke. A clutch par putt on 17 prevented Thomas and Schauffele from being level going into the last hole of regulation, the 677-yard monster par-5 18th, but he very nearly gave the entire tournament away on that hole.
After a mediocre drive, Thomas inexplicably hooked a fairway wood into the penalty area, and the momentum shift towards Schauffele was palpable as nearly a dozen people, unsuccessfully, filtered through the deep shrubbery looking for his ball.
While Thomas was unraveling, Schauffele reached the green in two, something that had only happened seven times on the 18th hole the entire week.
With a Schaffele birdie looking like a forgone conclusion, Thomas was able to hit a wedge to within eight feet from the penalty area, but shockingly missed his putt. Then, with a chance to win from even close, Schauffele’s birdie try missed the hole entirely, and suddenly, a three-man playoff was clinched between Thomas, Schauffele, and Patrick Reed, who put together a phenomenal final round which, moments before the final putts of regulation, still did not look like it would be quite enough.
The battle between the three players who were all on the recent winning American Presidents Cup team, and had all won this event in the past five years, went back to 18 to give it another go.
Schauffele was eliminated on the first extra hole after a second consecutive 3-putt after reaching the green in two. Also 26 years of age, Schauffele remarked after his round “everyone knew” he should have won.
Thomas was able to survive over the final two playoff holes, both which ALSO were held on 18, as Reed, whose field-low Sunday round of 7-under 66 was largely fueled by a very hot putter, was suddenly inept with his flatstick. The recent-embattled Reed, who faced cheating allegations and disastrous Presidents Cup to close last calendar year missed a would-be winning putt on the second playoff hole.
On the third, Thomas botched his second shot, which barely missed again landing in the penalty area, but another brilliant wedge shot put him just outside tap-in birdie range. Reed’s makeable birdie attempt, which was highlighted by a spectator loudly yelling “cheater” shortly after the ball was struck, slid well past the hole, and Thomas was then able to make his putt for the victory. Had the duo tied again, a Monday finish would have been necessary.
It was difficult, but even for the best, the wins do not always come easily. Like the great ones, Thomas was resilient, and made the shots he needed to, when he needed to make them.
Thomas shot a 4-under 69 in the final round at Kapalua, which put him at 14-under for the week. The former PGA Champion did not have a banner 2019, as a wrist injury derailed his major season, but he has been unbelievable since the FedExCup Playoffs started.
He won August’s BMW Championship, the second event of the playoffs in a route, and has been nearly unstoppable since the 2020 wrap-around season began shortly after, with two wins among four top-5s in just five season starts. He also led the winning American side in points at last month’s Presidents Cup, earning 3.5 as part of a stellar 3-1-1 effort.
The 2010s began with a victory at Kapalua by Geoff Ogilvy, who, like Thomas, won the event for the second time. Also a one-time major champion when the decade began, Ogilvy would go on to win just once more on the PGA Tour over the next ten years. It is very difficult to not envision Thomas faring much, much better in the 2020s.
Final Top-10 Finishers
Pos-Name-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Justin Thomas -14 (-4)
2. Patrick Reed -14 (-7)
2. Xander Schauffele -14 (-3)
4. Patrick Cantlay -11 (-5)
5. Rickie Fowler -10 (-4)
5. Joaquin Niemann -10 (-3)
7. Dustin Johnson -9 (-4)
7. Collin Morikawa -9 (2)
7. Gary Woodland -9 (-1)
10 Jon Rahm -8 (-1)
Final Stat Leaders
Driving: Cam Champ (292.7)
Fairways: Chez Reavie (56/60, 93.3%)
Greens: Xander Schauffele (60/72, 83.3%)
Putts/GIR: Patrick Reed (67/1.558)
Birdies: Justin Thomas (24)
How Justin Thomas Won The Sentry TOC
Scoring conditions were much more difficult at Kapalua than they were in 2017, when Thomas shot eight strokes better in a three-stroke win over Hideki Matsuyama. However, Thomas was still largely incredible for the week, despite his troubles in having to play the 18th hole over and over again.
His 24 birdies led the field for the week, as he racked up at least five in all four rounds. He had more bad holes over the final three rounds than he did when he opened the event with a bogey-free 6-under 67, but he was consistently able to bounce back throughout the week.
Thomas did not lead the 34-man field in any other statistic, but he did rank second in strokes gained: approach-the-green, strokes gained: tee-to-green, and was third in greens in regulation.
Thomas’ Winning Numbers
Driving: 271 (11th)
Fairways: 47/60, 78.0% (19th)
Greens: 56/72, 77.8% (3rd)
Putts/Per GIR: 93/1.661 (2nd)
Scores: 24 Birdies, 38 Pars, 10 Bogeys
Off the Tee: 2.532 (6th)
Approach the Green: 5.729 (2nd)
Tee to Green: 10.044 (2nd)
Putting: 0.868 (13th)
Total: 10.912 (1st)
What It Means For Thomas
Thomas already had every meaningful exemption on Tour, but with the victory, he becomes the first man in the field for next season’s Tournament of Champions, whose field comprises the winners of every event in the previous calendar year.
As just the third player to win the TOC twice since it moved permanently to Kapalua in 1999, Thomas will tee up next year attempting to become the sixth to win the event, which began 67 years ago, for at least a third time. Nicklaus holds the tournament record with five wins, followed by four players with three victories.
Thomas’ position at fourth in the world rankings remained unchanged, despite the victory. However, based on his talent and recent player, it seems like just a matter of time before Thomas creeps even closer to the No. 1 position currently held by Brooks Koepka, who sat this event with a knee injury. (Thomas led the world rankings for two weeks during the 2018 season.)
Thomas jumped to the top of the FedExCup Standings with the victory – a lead he will have a chance at widening at next week’s Sony Open, a tournament he once opened with a 59 on his way to a win that set the single-event PGA Tour record for all-time lowest score.
The win also notched him ahead of close friend and competitor Jordan Spieth on the all-time wins list.
Thomas’ 2019-20 PGA Tour Season
Cuts Made: 5
Wins: 2 (CJ Cup, Sentry TofC)
Additional Top 10s: 2 (T4 Safeway Open, T5 Hero World)
Earnings: $3,506,910 (1)
FedExCup Pts: 1,162 (1)
World Rank Before/After: 4/4
It was fair to wonder whether Patrick Reed’s game might suffer after some of his recent drama, but he was undoubtedly the best player at Kapalua on Sunday. Beginning the final round four strokes back of Schauffele’s lead, he played the final round in bogey-free 7-under 66, which was the best in the field by two strokes.
Reed was especially tremendous late with birdies on four of his final six holes, which gave him a prayer at a playoff, which then materialized with the 72nd hole gaffes of Schauffele and Thomas. Reed led the field in strokes gained: putting for the week, and his 45 one-putts was 13 more than anyone else.
The second-best round of the final day was put together by another American who was heavily used at the Presidents Cup. Patrick Cantlay birdied four of his final five holes to shoot a 5-under 68, which allowed him to reach 11-under for the week and finish solo-fourth, the closest competitor to the trio who made the playoff. Cantlay led the field for the week in strokes gained: approach-the green.
Dustin Johnson, a man who has won this event twice, most recently in an 8-stroke romp in the 2018 edition, is in the midst of a terrible slump by his incredible standard, having not finished better than 20th in any event of the past seven months.
However, his week in Kapalua might be what kickstarts him back to his past greatness. With five birdies in his first 12 holes, DJ was able to put together a 4-under 69 that rose him eight spots up the final leaderboard, into a tie for seventh place. Perhaps most encouraging was that he was second in the field for the week in strokes gained: putting.
Nobody had been hotter coming into the week than world No. 3 Jon Rahm, as the 25-year-old Spanish prodigy had been absolutely killing it overseas, with two wins and two runner-ups in his last five starts.
In 13 starts dating back to the U.S. Open, Rahm had posted a ridiculous 10 top 10s worldwide. Coming into the final round at Kapalua, Rahm was sitting just four strokes back of Schauffele’s lead, and figured to be among the chief threats to the tournament crown.
Rahm, though, did not have his best game on Sunday. While he was bogey-free, he carded just a single birdie for a 1-under 72 that dropped him from 4th to 10th in the final standings.
Matt Kuchar had a very up-and-down 2019 season, but got himself back into the good graces of many golf fans when he scored the victory-clinching half-point for the Americans at the recent Presidents Cup. He carried that positive momentum into the first three rounds at the Tournament of Champions, as he was just five strokes out of the lead going into the final round, but Sunday was a disaster for the man who won twice early last season.
Kuchar failed to card a birdie until the 14th hole and ended up shooting a 2-over 75 that led to a pedestrian T14 finish.
While Thomas played the four-hole stretch from 8-11 in 4-under-par, Martin Trainer played it in 8-over. Trainer, who got into the TOC by winning last year’s opposite-field Puerto Rico Open, shot 9-over 82 in his final round, and his final score of 18-over was the worst in the field by eight shots.
Trainer finished dead last at 34th in the 34 man field, but if there is a bright side, he at least snapped a streak of 15 straight missed cuts. Granted, it was a no-cut event.
“My adrenaline is kind of wearing off, so I’m tired, I don’t know what happened, but all I know is I played — I mean, really 16 I feel like I didn’t play that poorly. I hit a great drive, just the wind got it, took it a little farther and a 70-yard bunker shot is not exactly easy, but I played 16 holes about as good as I could have played them in those conditions.
“I felt like I had total control of the tournament. I was doing everything well, and just kind of got between clubs on 17, made a great putt there for par, and then 18 was a terrible drive that left me on a steep, steep downslope and hit the wrong club, but we got lucky to where we had a chance and even more lucky that we were given more chances, and fortunate enough to get it done.”
– Justin Thomas