CIMB title defense just the next step for Thomas

By Will GrayOctober 23, 2016, 11:25 am

Sometimes with athletes, the growth happens all at once. A single performance, a solitary breakthrough, can serve as a divergent moment and lead to an overhaul of expectations.

For most, though, that transition happens a bit more slowly. There are high water marks, and then the levels recede a bit before the next wave. Consider Justin Thomas among the latter group - for now.

Thomas fired a bogey-free 64 to rally for victory at the CIMB Classic, successfully defending the only PGA Tour title he's ever held. It's simply the next step in the evolution of a player who, at age 23, holds plenty of promise.

Thomas completed a standout college career at the University of Alabama in 2013, and he reached the Tour one year later. As a rookie, he showed flashes of form at several events, but never enough to win and ultimately fell short of Daniel Berger when the Rookie of the Year votes were tallied.

He earned his first win in Kuala Lumpur last fall, but he failed to remain consistent over the summer and narrowly missed out on a Ryder Cup captain's selection.

This time around, it seems his Malaysian win could serve as a further stepping stone to a season that includes multiple victories, contending in a major or a spot on the Presidents Cup team at Liberty National. Or perhaps all of the above.

While Thomas was shaky down the stretch at this event last year, clinging to a lead and barely holding off a hard-charging Adam Scott, the script was flipped on Sunday. This time it was Anirban Lahiri who played the part of the nerve-wracked leader in search of his first win, and Thomas was the cool, even-keeled player trying to chase him down.

Thomas didn't need much of an opening, but Lahiri offered a sizeable one with his quadruple bogey of the third hole, allowing Thomas to take a lead he would never relinquish.

While Derek Fathauer and Hideki Matsuyama eventually got within striking distance, Thomas never wavered. He followed birdies on six of his first 10 holes with a string of steady pars, then added birdies on Nos. 16 and 17 to effectively put the trophy on ice.

It was a stirring performance, and one that Thomas credited to his third-round rally when he closed with five straight birdies after playing Nos. 10-12 in 4 over to fade briefly from contention.

"I felt like that was maybe the biggest five holes of my life, even moreso than last year, because it gave me a chance," Thomas told reporters. "If I'm going into today eight or nine back, I have no chance, or at least I don't think. It was huge."

CIMB Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Thomas' third-round comeback underscores the amount of growth he has made as a player, even since first getting his hands on the CIMB trophy a year ago. To jump from playing three holes in 4 over at a critical juncture to playing the next 16 holes in 11 under is the mark not only of a seasoned veteran, but a player who does not shirk from pressure.

"I was behind the 8-ball big time," Thomas said. "I knew that I was better than that. I knew that I had a lead and I had not played with the lead really too many times. I think here last year was the only other time, maybe a couple times I was tied for 36 holes, and I just didn't handle it very well."

He had no trouble handling the elements this time around, further confirming that he is prepared to take the next step in an already promising career.

It's a natural progression, but not one that always plays out with the steps so clearly delineated. Thomas first learned to contend, then he learned how to win. This weekend in Malaysia he displayed a veteran's vision when things started to unravel, then unleashed a rally with surgical precision.

There aren't many untouched rungs left on the ladder for Thomas, but expect him to get to next one - winning twice in a PGA Tour season - before he returns to Malaysia for the three-peat.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.