Back to the beginning: Since winning at Kapalua, Thomas has enjoyed breakout year

Sentry Tournament of Champions

Justin Thomas started last year with victories at the Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open before winning his first major, the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, and adding titles at the Dell Technologies Championship and CJ Cup. AP file photo

Justin Thomas started last year with victories at the Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open before winning his first major, the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, and adding titles at the Dell Technologies Championship and CJ Cup. AP file photo

Just 12 months ago, Justin Thomas came to the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua without a PGA Tour win on American soil.

He will soon return to the Plantation Course as the reigning FedEx Cup champion, the PGA Player of the Year, the 2017 PGA champion and the third-ranked golfer in the world. He credits a large part of his meteoric rise to his victory here last year.

“Oh, I mean it is definitely at the top of the list in terms of starting off the year,” Thomas said via phone Monday from his home in Louisville, Ky. “I mean, you can’t start off the year any better than that.”

His victory at 23-under par held off one of the hottest players in the world at the time, Hideki Matsuyama, by three strokes.

“That was awesome, just the week as a whole was a great experience,” Thomas said. “It was a great confidence boost. I kind of went through all types that week in terms of I was behind a little bit and then I played with the lead I think the last two or three days. It was great, it was something that I’ll always be able to look back on in terms of a learning experience.”

Justin Thomas poses with his trophies from the Tournament of Champions

Justin Thomas poses with his trophies from the Tournament of Champions

One of the lessons was learning how to win. He added to two CIMB Classic titles won in Malaysia with the victory here, followed one week later by a runaway win at the Sony Open in which he became the youngest player ever to shoot 59 in a PGA Tour event, and later in the summer he added the PGA Championship and Dell Technologies Championship to his victory list on the way to claiming the FedEx Cup.

His five wins in the 2017 season propelled him to the PGA Player of the Year award and he was also an instrumental member of the victorious American team in the Presidents Cup.

Now, he returns to the Plantation Course as the defending champion of the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Last season, without a title sponsor lined up for the future, the event appeared to be in limbo. Sentry has a five-year agreement to keep the event at Kapalua through 2022.

“First off it’s Hawaii, so it’s pretty easy to love Hawaii,” Thomas said. “It’s an important course. There’s not many people out there, so that’s different. That’s not a reason to like it, but it just creates that vibe. Everyone kind of bring family. You have great dinners with everyone.

“It’s not a week where you’re playing all day and all afternoon. It’s just go play some golf and however you play, great. It’s a small field, so I guess you could say everyone’s going to make a lot of money, everyone is going to get (FedEx Cup) points.”

the Sony Open

the Sony Open

Thomas has presented his father, Mike Thomas, with a golf ball from all of his wins, dating back to his stellar junior golf career. Mike Thomas received the ball that fell into the hole on the Plantation Course’s No. 18 to seal the win last January as mother Jani looked on.

His family will be in the gallery again when the Sentry TOC takes place Jan. 4-7.

“They wouldn’t miss that one,” Thomas said. “They’re probably more excited than I am. I would really love to make it as easy as I did last year — that’s the first (thing) I said to my caddie on 18 green (last year). I’m like, ‘We’re coming back to Kapalua, thank God.’ I made it easy on myself last year where they weren’t putting a lot of pressure on me.”

Longtime junior golf foe and friend Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker were among the professionals that gathered around the 72nd hole last season to watch Thomas wrap up his momentum-building victory.

His biggest memory from a year ago?

and the PGA Championship. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo (Kapalua); AP file photos

and the PGA Championship. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo (Kapalua); AP file photos

“Having my parents there,” he said. “They’d never seen me win a PGA Tour event. Both times I won in Malaysia they weren’t there, so it was the first time I was able to walk off 18 green and give mom and dad a hug after a win, so that (was) definitely the best.”

To know that the event will be here for the next five years, at least, is huge for Thomas.

“I’m so excited about it, it’s going to be awesome,” he said. “Anytime that one of our favorite tournaments for the guys on tour appears in jeopardy or anything and then gets an extension like that, it’s great. All of us love going there, like I said before. It’s good to know that five more years I’m going to have the opportunity to go there.

“I hope that that is my first tournament of the year for the rest of my career.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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