South Korea is a fast-rising power in men’s golf, and unquestionably the New England Patriots of women’s golf, but their king might be an American.
Justin Thomas shot a 5-under 67 on Sunday to reach 20-under for the week and win The CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges, his second victory in the short, three-year history of the tournament, held on South Korea’s Jeju Island. In what was largely a Sunday round of match play, the 26-year-old Thomas outdueled South Korea native Danny Lee, using a late surge to win by two strokes.
The victory was the 11th of Thomas’ immensely impressive career. Since WW2, only two golfers – a couple of guys named Tiger and Jack – have accumulated more wins before the age of 27.
Thomas has been especially on his game of late, as this was his seventh consecutive result inside the top 12, and fourth-straight top-10 finish, including a victory at August’s BMW Championship, the second leg of the 2019 FedExCup Playoffs.
Late on Saturday, it appeared that Thomas would hold a significant lead going into Sunday, as he stood on the 18th tee with a three-shot lead. However, an untimely bogey on the par-5, combined with an eagle from Lee, knotted the two atop the leaderboard with just one round to go.
Thomas jumped out to an early two-stroke lead on Sunday after birdies on Nos. 1 and 3, but a bogey on the 4th hole led to a two-stroke swing, knotting the score up again. From there, Thomas and Lee seemed to match each other stroke for stroke, which was especially impressive for the 29-year-old Lee, whose lone Tour victory came four years ago, and has admittedly struggled with self-imposed pressure late in events.
However, reality set back in when Thomas, the world’s now fourth-ranked golfer, birdied the par-4 14th hole to secure a one-stroke lead he would never again relinquish. While Thomas parred Nos. 15 and 16, Lee sent his tee and approach shots into fairway and greenside bunkers, respectively, on both holes, resulting in two straight dropped shots. Suddenly, Thomas had a three-stroke advantage with just two holes to play.
Thomas would bogey the par-3 17th to reduce his edge to a deuce going into the final hole, but there would be no Saturday repeat. Lee, who nearly holed an eagle putt to put pressure on the leader, ended with a tap-in birdie, but watched as Thomas calmly sunk his own short birdie putt to seal a two-shot victory.
Final Top-10 Finishers
Pos-Name-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Justin Thomas -20 (-5)
2. Danny Lee -18 (-3)
3. Hideki Matsuyama -15 (-7)
3. Gary Woodland -15 (-5)
3. Cameron Smith -15 (-3)
6. Tyrrell Hatton -13 (-4)
6. Byeong Hun An -13 (-3)
8. Ryan Mooore -12 (-4)
8. Kiradech Aphibarnrat -12 (-3)
8. Jordan Spieth -12 (-1)
8. Wyndham Clark -12 (-1)
12. Joaquin Niemann -11
16. KJ Choi -10
16. Ian Poulter -10
20. Tommy Fleetwood -9
20. Kevin Na -9
31. Viktor Hovland -7
31. Phil Mickelson -7
31. Jason Day -7
36. Collin Morikawa -6
46. Chase Koepka -3
46. Chex Reavie -3
46. Danny Willett -3
60. Sergio Garcia E
How Justin Thomas Won The CJ Cup
After opening the CJ Cup with a 4-under 68, Thomas surged into the lead when he birdied his first four holes of the second round en route to a 9-under 63, which tied for the lowest round in the field for the entire week.
Having played frequently with the lead in his young career (he’s now converted eight of 11 54-hole leads), Thomas showed considerable composure over the weekend, the hiccup on Saturday’s 18th hole notwithstanding, and made very few mistakes on Sunday, which he admitted afterwards was difficult after witnessing Lee make so many tremendous saves.
Thomas’ 27 birdies led the field for the week, and he was tremendous with his irons, hitting at least 15 greens on three of the four days, finishing third in the field in greens in regulation.
After defending champion and world No. 1 Brooks Koepka withdrew from the tournament following the second round with knee pain, Thomas became the highest-ranked player still playing, and the only member of the world’s top 10 still in the field. Statistically, he was the best player in the field, and he played like it.
Thomas’ Winning Numbers
Fairways: 39/56, 69.6% (45th)
Greens: 60/72, 83.3% (3rd)
Putts/GIR: 104/1.733 (65th)
Scores: 27 Birdies, 38 Pars, 7 Bogeys
Par-3: +3 (1 Birdie, 11 Pars, 4 Bogeys)
Par-4: -13 (14 Birdies, 25 Pars, 1 Bogey)
Par-5: -10 (12 Birdies, 2 Pars, 2 Bogeys)
What It Means For Thomas
Despite finishing third in last season’s FedExCup Standings, 2019 was still considered something of an off year for Thomas, who, largely due to time missed with a wrist injury, and a slow way back to form when he returned from that time off, went from a combined eight wins over the previous two seasons to just one last year. However, he is looking like elite JT again, and it would not be a huge surprise to see him win a few more times this season, including another major.
It would also not be surprising if Thomas – a former world No. 1, challenges again for that top spot very soon as he will move to No. 4.
Despite having only played two events, The CJ Cup, plus last month’s Safeway Open, where he finished T4, Thomas has risen to first-place on the money list, and third in the FedExCup points standings.
Thomas’ 2019-20 PGA Tour Season
Cuts Made: 2
Wins: 1 (CJ Cup)
Additional Top 10: 1 (T4 Safeway)
Earnings: $2,032,750 (1)
FedExCup Pts: 615 (3)
World Rank Before/After: 5/4
The floodgates did not exactly open for Gary Woodland after his breakthrough major performance at the U.S. Open last June.
In seven starts since those brilliant four days in June that led to a stunning victory over major savant Brooks Koepka at Pebble Beach, the 35-year-old Kansas product had failed to produce a single top-10 finish. In fact his only finish inside the top 30 was a 15th place result at the 30-man Tour Championship.
However, it appears that the bomber’s mojo might be back after a strong week in South Korea. A 6-under 66 on Sunday, which followed a Saturday round of 7-under 65, saw him reach 15-under par, good for a share of third place.
Woodland, who finished runner-up to Koepka in this event a year ago, carded just two bogeys over the final three rounds.
Shooting one stroke better than Woodland on Sunday to tie him for third was Hideki Matsuyama, who rode a tremendous day with his irons to a bogey-free, 7-under 65. Looking for his first victory since his three-win 2017 season, the 27-year-old Matsuyama will be a popular pick to win next week, as the PGA Tour is heading to his native Japan for the inaugural Zozo Championship.
Sunday’s low round also came from an international player, but one from a country much further away from South Korea than where Matusyama hails. Colombia’s Jhonattan Vegas opened his final round with a bogey, and then added another on No. 7 (he started on the back nine), yet STILL shot an incredible 9-under 63, which tied Thomas’ Friday for the low round of the week.
Vegas, a three-time Tour winner, was immaculate on the par-5s, playing the four-pack to 6-under-par (two eagles, two birdies), and finished strong, as five of his seven birdies came on the final seven holes. Vegas jumped a field-high 33 spots up the Sunday leaderboard, finishing T16.
One of the players tied with Thomas for the third-most wins (11) in PGA Tour history before the age of 27 is three-time major champion Jordan Spieth. Unfortunately for the now 26-year old Texan, he’s been stuck on those same 11 wins since he was 24-years old, coming off an iconic victory at Royal Birkdale.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Spieth’s most-recent disappointing (2019) season was his weekend scoring, particularly his final-round results, which ranked a dismal 187th on Tour – an enormous dropoff from his 9th ranked first-round average, and his top-ranked round-two average. (In one of the most mind-boggling stats, Spieth – in 22 starts last season – just once posted two weekend scores in the 60s).
Spieth decided to make The CJ Cup his season debut, and while it’s a limited sample, so far he looks a lot like the Spieth of 2018 and 2019, and not much like the Spieth of 2014-2017.
He came into the final round in fourth place, just four shots out of the lead, but he torpedoed his chances right out of the gate with back to back bogeys on Nos. 1 and 2. Spieth played better over his final 16, shooting 3-under par on Nos. 3-18, yet he never challenged the leaders. He would go on to sign for a 1-under 71 which tied the worst Sunday round of anyone in the field who finished inside the top 25.
He would end in a tie for 8th place, just his second top-10 in nearly five months.
As mediocre as Spieth was on Sunday, he was considerably better than another player who had contended early in the week, Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo. After opening with rounds of 69 and 66, Grillo sat at 9-under heading into the weekend, and even after a 72 on Saturday, he was still firmly entrenched in the top 10 (T7) through 54 holes.
However, a pedestrian front-nine turned into a disastrous final round early on the inward set as Grillo double-bogeyed Nos. 10 and 12. He limited the damage with three birdies over his final five holes, but still managed just a 1-over 73, dropping him all the way down into a tie for 26th.
Sunday’s biggest drop came from a very surprising place: 2019 rookie phenom Collin Morikawa, who just turned pro in late June and finished inside the top 4 in three of his first four starts, including a victory at the Barracuda Championship. Morikawa birdied nine holes on Saturday en route to a 7-under 65 that vaulted him into the top 10 heading into the finale.
Unfortunately for the 22-year-old American, Sunday was much different. Morikawa carded seven bogeys, and even with an eagle on the final hole, he shot a disappointing 3-over 75 that sent him spiraling 29 spots down the final leaderboard – from T7 to T36.
“It definitely helps. You’re kind of able to draw back on past experiences, and maybe things I did poorly in the past, but you know it’s always nice playing, trying to win in a place you’ve already won at; I only had that opportunity once, in Malaysia, but it’s pretty awesome. I don’t know, something about Asia I like.”
– Justin Thomas