KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Only weeks after capping his brilliant season with the $10 million bonus as FedExCup champion, Justin Thomas heads back to his happy hunting ground at the CIMB Classic, seeking a ‘threepeat’ of titles in Malaysia.
Much has changed for 24-year-old Thomas since his last trip to TPC Kuala Lumpur, when he was still an unproven, if highly regarded, talent coming off his rookie season.
A three-stroke win to defend his championship underlined his pedigree, however, and was the springboard for a stellar campaign featuring five wins, a maiden major title and last month’s FedExCup triumph.
Once known as “Jordan Spieth’s friend”, the Louisville, Kentucky-born golfer returns to Southeast Asia as the PGA Tour’s player of the year and in the wake of an impressive debut for the United States in their dominant Presidents Cup win.
Repeating his 2016-17 heroics will be a stiff challenge but the co-sanctioned CIMB Classic could offer the perfect platform for another productive season for the world number four.
That is, of course, if fatigue can be kept at bay.
Thomas has barely had time to pause for breath after a frenetic finish to the campaign and will take a proper break only after playing next week’s CJ Cup, South Korea’s first PGA Tour-sanctioned event.
“It’s going to be a little bit different this year, just in terms of everything that’s happened and kind of the lack of preparation I’ll probably get as opposed to years prior,” Thomas said last week.
Thomas will also be up against a quality field at the PGA Tour’s second event in the 2017-18 calendar, including Japan’s world number three Hideki Matsuyama, who he pipped for the circuit’s player of the year award.
Twenty-five-year-old Matsuyama, another sparkling young talent, was runner-up behind Thomas in Malaysia last year in a breakout season boasting three wins and two top-five finishes at the majors.
Like most of his International team mates, he had a forgettable Presidents Cup, however, and was unwell upon returning to Japan.
“I just took the week off. Today’s round was really the first time I’ve picked up a club since the Presidents Cup, but hopefully I can find my game quickly and somehow make it interesting on Sunday,” he said at TPC Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.
Apart from Thomas, eight other major winners are in the restricted field of 78 at the $7 million tournament, including Americans Keegan Bradley, Stewart Cink and Jason Dufner, and a trio of South Africans in Ernie Els, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by John O'Brien