KAPALUA, Hawaii – At no other stop is the style of victory as much a personality trait as it is at the SBS Tournament of Champions.
All 32 are champions, card-carrying members of the game’s most exclusive club and all are somewhat defined by those varied accomplishments.
William McGirt, for example, won the Memorial last June in a gutsy playoff for his first PGA Tour victory, a testament to perseverance and pluck; while Justin Thomas’ ticket to Kapalua was punched just a few weeks ago with an impressive three-stroke statement over red-hot Hideki Matsuyama at the CIMB Classic, a lofty victory to go along with all that untapped potential.
In simplest terms, you are what your victory says you are – be it a gritty journeyman or a prodigy with something to prove. So on Sunday with a fresh wind giving the Plantation Course some much-needed teeth, Thomas’ play and pluck spoke volumes.
It wasn’t supposed to be this hard, not when the 23-year-old began the final round with a two-stroke lead, a mountain of momentum and one of the most powerful swings pound-for-pound in the big leagues.
Thomas was virtually business-like for nine holes with birdies at Nos. 3, 5 and 8 to turn at 21 under and five strokes clear of McGirt. Matsuyama, widely considered the hottest player in golf at the moment following three victories in his last four global starts, stumbled early with a series of poor putts that would come back to haunt him.
That’s when things became interesting.
On Saturday, McGirt said he felt like he would have "putted better blindfolded.” When he four-putted the 10th hole from 49 feet on his way to a double bogey-6 the entire affair started to have a firing-squad air to it as the veteran faded from contention.
At the Plantation Course, however, not even five up with nine to play is safe. The final loop began to resemble the final two minutes of an NBA game with three dramatic swings over the closing stretch.
The first came at the 14th hole when Matsuyama eagled the par 4 and Thomas could only manage a birdie. At the next hole, Thomas hit what he called a “fat-hooked” 4-iron into a hazard on his way to a double bogey-7.
“I told [caddie Jimmy Johnson] walking up to 17 tee, I was like, we would have taken this spot before the week started,” said Thomas, whose lead had been trimmed to a single stroke. “I was still playing great. I was hitting a lot of good shots. It was just a lot slimmer lead than it could have been.”
The final swing came at the 17th hole when Matsuyama three-putted from 29 feet for bogey and Thomas converted from 3 feet for birdie to pull a field goal clear.
For Thomas it was his third Tour victory and moves him into the top 15 in the world ranking. But just as it is with all victories, the subtext of his accomplishment was much more meaningful, if not a tad more difficult to quantify.
Infinitely talented and considered by many a future superstar, Thomas’ play hadn’t been as consistent as some would have expected, including Thomas. The golf swing has never been a question, but his ability to withstand the pressures of contending has been.
But on Sunday after his worst swing of the week on the 15th hole, he never showed any signs of frustration, not a hint of impatience.
“He didn’t even flinch. He didn’t say anything, he just keeps playing now,” Johnson said. “A year and a half ago he would have kept playing but there would have been more turmoil in his head. His head was clear the whole day.”
Thomas was not as kind when asked how he would have reacted to the dramatic turn of events on No. 15 just two years ago. “I probably would still be out there crying or whining about it,” he conceded with a smile and a shrug.
Instead, he’s now won twice in his first four starts of the 2016-17 season and solidified himself as one of the game’s established players. At 23, some would consider that ahead of schedule, but in some ways Thomas has suffered by association.
A longtime friend and frequent practice-round partner of Jordan Spieth, the external comparisons between the two always felt unfair, not because Thomas was an inferior player but because few in the history of the game have been able to develop, and deliver, as quickly as Spieth.
But moments after Spieth congratulated him for his victory on the Plantation Course’s 18th green, Thomas conceded the internal pressure had been the most difficult over his first two seasons on Tour.
“I wasn't mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating sometimes seeing some friends and peers my age do well,” Thomas said. “Not because I wasn't cheering for them, [but] because I feel like I was as good as them. It's just immature of me. I mean, the fact of the matter is, over the course of a long career, we're going to beat each other. That's just how it is.”
It was his victory in October at the CIMB Classic, his second consecutive triumph at the Asian stop, where Thomas said he started to truly feel comfortable in his Tour skin, but it will most likely be his three-stroke coronation at Kapalua that propels him to that coveted next level.
“I think it's potentially floodgates opening,” Spieth said of Thomas’ victory. “The guy hits it forever. He's got a really, really nifty short game. He manages the course well ... I’m really excited for him. It's awesome. He's going to be tough to beat next week [Sony Open], too.”
Each victory has a personality, and Thomas’ eventful triumph in Maui fits the new champion perfectly – confident, surprisingly cool and comfortable.