PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Justin Thomas is walking a little taller this year at the Honda Classic.
He is No. 8 in the world, the second-highest ranked player at PGA National behind defending champion Adam Scott at No. 7. Thomas also has three victories, the most of anyone on the PGA Tour this season, and he set the tour’s 72-hole scoring record at the Sony Open that includes a 59.
Walking tall is all about confidence.
What he’d really like is to walk with a swagger. That’s what he sees in Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1, and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy.
“You look at people like DJ and Rory, I think it’s so cool watching them go walk around the golf course because they just look so unbeatable, and they have such great strides and such confidence just when they walk,” Thomas said. “When you’re playing somebody and they’re slumping their shoulders and they look exhausted, you’re like, ‘Hey, I can beat this guy.’ I’m trying to work to be a little bit more even keel and less emotional.”
Thomas looked unbeatable just over a month ago.
He won at Kapalua by three shots over Hideki Matsuyama, and then he crushed the field at Waialae to win by eight shots. Those titles followed his successful title defense in Malaysia last October, and he was riding high.
And then he missed the cut in the Phoenix Open and made the cut on the number at Riviera.
Back to work.
What helps at the Honda Classic, now a hometown event from when the 23-year-old from Kentucky moved to these parts upon turning pro, is that he is getting comfortable on a course that has a habit of making players feel anything but that.
Thomas was on the fringe of contention late in the final round when he took double bogey on the par-3 17th and he tied for third.
But that’s what PGA National can do, especially the closing holes that seem to have more water than grass.
A year ago, Scott was playing some of the best golf of his life when he put two balls into the water on the par-3 15th hole of the third round to go from a three-shot lead to a one-shot deficit. He at least had another round to settle himself, and he was all too relieved to stay dry in the final round for a one-shot victory.
The year before that, Padraig Harrington had a one-shot lead when he hit into the water on the 17th and made double bogey. Right when it looked as though he would lose, the Irishman holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to get into a playoff with Daniel Berger, and Harrington hit 5-iron to within 3 feet on the 17th to secure a surprising victory.
“Certainly 15 and 17, you’re thinking about those holes for a long time and trying to figure out your strategy and just really praying to get through them,” he said.
On Wednesday, there was water everywhere.
The threat of rain arrived in the early afternoon, with about 2 inches of rain expected by the time it stopped. The course was firm and dry until then, and course superintendent Brad Nelson said the course likely would be soft the rest of the week.
The Honda Classic is missing the top six players in the world, only surprising because of McIlroy. He intended to play until a rib injury in South Africa, and now won’t return until next week in Mexico City.
Even if Scott, Thomas or Sergio Garcia (No. 9) were to win this week, they could move no higher than No. 7 in the world.
Thomas, however, has shown that when all aspects of his game are firing, he can be as difficult to beat as anyone. Berger saw that at the Sony Open when they were paired together for two rounds. Berger shot 65-67 and was nine shots behind.
“That week at the Sony Open … I’ve never seen a guy play like that,” Berger said. “Like, he didn’t even know what he was doing. He would just hit the ball and it would be 10 feet and he would make the putt.”
“The week before, I don’t know if he got lucky there, too,” Berger said of Thomas’ win at Kapalua. “I think when he is on point, I think he’s really, really good.”
As much as Thomas and everyone else has the Masters (April 6-9) on their minds, there is part of him that feels he is missing something – a PGA Tour victory when most of his friends are watching, or at least not sleeping. He has two victories in Malaysia and two in Hawaii.
“I’d like to get a win on the homeland,” Thomas said. “Not only for me, but so everyone can stop making fun of me that I can’t win on the homeland.”