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CIMB title defense just the next step for Thomas

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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."

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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.