KAPALUA, Hawaii – However unfair it might be, there was a time when Justin Thomas was better known as Jordan Spieth’s buddy.
He was the guy in the viral videos from #SB2K16, last year’s spring break extravaganza that included Rickie Fowler and Smylie Kaufman, and he always shows up in old pictures with Spieth from the duo’s junior days.
But as Thomas begins his sophomore season on the PGA Tour, that narrative has slowly but surely changed. In October, he won his second Tour event at the CIMB Classic. Before that he willed himself into the Ryder Cup mix until Ryan Moore made U.S. captain Davis Love III’s decision academic with a runner-up showing at the Tour Championship.
Shadows cast long here on Maui, no doubt the byproduct of seemingly endless vistas, but the 23-year-old is on the verge of wresting himself out of Spieth’s gravitational pull entirely thanks to three impressive days at the SBS Tournament of Champions.
Thomas has been as flawless as he has been consistent for three days at Kapalua, signing for three rounds of 67 for an 18-under total and two-stroke lead.
“I was trying to get to 20 [under]. I felt like that was very, very doable,” said Thomas, who has just two bogeys in 54 holes and eagled the 14th hole on Saturday to emerge from a crowded leaderboard. “I easily could have. I feel like I could be at 22 or 23, just as easy, as well. I just was trying to make birdies. It's a course where you can just get so hot.”
That it will be Hideki Matsuyama paired with Thomas for the final turn only adds a level of intrigue to Sunday’s final round.
Thomas beat Matsuyama by three strokes last fall at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. It’s the only blemish for Matsuyama during a dominant fall that included four victories around the globe in five starts.
If Thomas’ play and potential were overlooked early in his Tour career, he’s poised to forge his own status as a bona fide headliner thanks to equal parts talent and determination.
In 2015, his rookie year on Tour, he posted seven top-10 finishes and narrowly missed advancing to the Tour Championship, and last season was another step in the right direction, but there was room for improvement.
For Thomas, the key to reaching the next level was off the tee, where he’s established himself as one of the longest on Tour but not always the most accurate.
“If I can drive it a lot straighter or even just a little straighter, there's no reason I shouldn't be in contention, or be at least around the hunt going into the weekend, or come Sunday,” he said. “I feel like that's a part of my game that I struggled with last year.”
This week at Kapalua, he ranks first in strokes gained: off the tee, which is a byproduct of his length (third in the field in driving distance) and improved accuracy (17th in fairways hit).
On Saturday following his round, Spieth spoke of Thomas’ improved game off the tee and how much better he is at course management, which is always a challenge for a younger player, particularly those of the aggressive variety like JT. But it’s been Thomas' ability to perform under pressure where Spieth has seen the most progress.
“He’s certainly learned how to win and close tournaments out,” Spieth said. “He’s the only guy to beat Hideki all fall. He beat the hottest player in golf at his hottest time. So he’s certainly not scared of that.”
That it will be Matsuyama waiting for him on the first tee on Sunday at Kapalua adds a level of intensity to the final round that normally isn’t there in Maui. It’s not as though winning the Tournament of Champions doesn’t bring the normal pressures, it’s just the event’s relaxed vibe normally keeps things mellow relative to a normal Tour Sunday.
But the rematch with Matsuyama elevates things.
“If I'm near Hideki in the tournament, that's probably a pretty good thing on Sunday,” Thomas said. “He's obviously a tremendous player and he's on an unbelievable run here the last five events.”
Thomas appears to have grown weary of his ever-present connection to Spieth. Asked on Friday if he’d spoken with this week’s defending champion about the nuances of playing the Plantation Course, his economy of words spoke volumes. “I haven’t, no,” he said.
If Thomas is able to outduel Matsuyama again and win his third Tour title, Spieth might be the one asking for tips next year in Maui.