Thomas happy to be back

Justin Thomas, the 2017 Sentry Tournament of Champions winner, chips to the Kapalua Plantation Course's 18th green during his practice round Tuesday. The Maui News /MATTHEW THAYER photo

KAPALUA – Justin Thomas is back in a place he loves, the Kapalua Plantation Course for the Sentry Tournament of Champions that begins on Thursday.

“Always great to start the year here at Kapalua,” Thomas said during his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday. “I think for a handful, a very high percentage of us, this is a great, great place to start the year and it’s just … it doesn’t get any better than being in Hawaii.”

Thomas, the No. 4-ranked golfer in the world, won this event in his first appearance in 2017 and tied for 22nd last year.

“It’s a small field, a chance to get a lot of FedExCup points and get a good jump start to the year if you’ve either been behind or haven’t played yet,” Thomas said. “And, yeah, it’s been nice a little offseason and excited to get going.”

Thomas last event was the Hero World Challenge that ended Dec. 2 in the Bahamas.

“I was home almost the entire time,” Thomas said. “I had a little family vacation after that and I was home actually 20 straight nights, which was I think the longest I’ve ever been home since I’ve been professional, so I was pretty excited about that. I was able to get in a good routine and just get a good amount of rest and work on my game, work on my body. And like I said, I’m just happy to be here. It’s crazy it’s started already.”

Thomas is a University of Alabama graduate and a rabid Crimson Tide football fan.

He has a two-day window between the end of the Sentry Tournament of Champions and the pro-am at the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club on Oahu, enough time for him to fly from Maui to Santa Clara, Calif., watch Alabama play Clemson for the national title, and then get back to Honolulu.

Thomas, who won a national title in golf at Alabama, won’t be going to the national championship game on Monday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

The thought did cross his mind.

“There were a couple of scenarios that would have made it possible, but it’s too much,” Thomas said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It would have involved someone being here who had a plane that I could have swayed into going to the game, and he provides the plane and I provide the tickets and then I go back to the Sony.”

Would that have been a player who made a late decision not to play at Kapalua?

“Yes,” Thomas said with a laugh.

Maybe someone who knows the area near Levi’s Stadium because he went to Stanford?

Another laugh, without ever mentioning Tiger Woods by name. Woods announced he would not be in the field here on Wednesday, two days before the deadline to commit.

Thomas said that a high priority for him this season is to get back to the No. 1 ranking in the world — his run to that summit began with his win here two years ago.

“It’s extremely important,” he said. “Not necessarily this year, but it just, it’s any year, it’s any time. That being said, it’s, there’s a lot of very stiff and hard competition. There’s a lot of guys that are playing really well and it’s such a tight race I guess you could say that really there’s a handful of guys that are really two, three weeks away from, if they win a couple in a row or have a couple good weeks in majors or something then they could just as easily take it over.

“So it is very important to me and it’s something I try not to think too much about but also have but I’m trying to win golf tournaments, I’m not — and that will result in getting closer or getting to No. 1 — but it’s not like I’m out there practicing like, okay, this shot is to get to No. 1 in the world or I’m trying to win it, you know what I mean? So it’s just a part of the process.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

Thursday’s first-round tee times

10 a.m. Satoshi Kodaira, Cameron Champ

10:10 Kevin Tway, Troy Merritt

10:20 Matt Kuchar, Michael Kim

10:30 Ted Potter, Jr., Scott Piercy

10:40 Charles Howell III, Brice Garnett

10:50 Brandt Snedeker, Ian Poulter

11 a.m. Andrew Putnam, Andrew Landry

11:10 Marc Leishman, Patton Kizzire

11:20 Gary Woodland, Kevin Na

11:30 Aaron Wise, Paul Casey

11:40 Patrick Reed, Jon Rahm

11:50 Jason Day, Francesco Molinari

12 p.m. Rory McIlroy, Xander Schauffele

12:10 Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson

12:20 Keegan Bradley, Brooks Koepka

12:30 Billy Horschel, Justin Thomas

12:40 Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson