Justin Thomas’ climb to No. 2 in the world further boosts Honda Classic’s reputation

Honda Classic champion Justin Thomas almost made it back-to-back victories on the PGA Tour, finishing second to Phil Mickelson Sunday in a playoff for the World Golf Championship event in Mexico.

What does this mean? Well, JT is red hot, for one thing, and he’s earned a break after three top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour in the space of three weeks. Thomas is skipping this week’s Valspar Championship near Tampa, an event that otherwise is loading up on more stars than usual with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth in the field.

Justin Thomas reacts to winning the 2018 Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida on February 25, 2018. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

In the longer view, the upward trend in Thomas’ game seems to have no end.

Two wins already this season, including October’s CJ Cup in South Korea. Seven wins in the last 33 events. Seven top-10 finishes in the last 13. Second behind Dustin Johnson in the Official World Golf Rankings.

This is looking every bit as dominating as the run that first lifted McIlroy to No. 1 in the world. The year was 2012 and Rory followed up a Honda win with three more Tour victories, including the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.

McIlroy was 22 when he won that Honda and first climbed to No. 1 in the process.

Thomas, 24, is every bit as ambitious. The way he’s going, he’ll be a threat to win at the Masters, where a tie for 22nd is his previous best. Overall, there’s no reason to think that JT won’t eventually match McIlroy’s running total of four major championships.

To have both of these young men based in Jupiter is a gift to the Honda Classic. Now if we can just get world Dustin, another local, to return to PGA National. Haven’t seen him in the Honda since a missed cut in 2015.

Top-ranked golfers and Palm Beach County’s PGA Tour stop really should go together. Since the Honda moved to PGA National in 2007, three players who at one point topped the world rankings have won the tournament. They are McIlroy, Ernie Els and Adam Scott.

Thomas figures to make it four, either this year or soon thereafter, when he makes it to No. 1 as well.

[Kevin Love opens up on The Players’ Tribune, a Derek Jeter project]

[Jim Kelly astonished a Boca Raton crowd with his cancer story]

[Marlins’ inaugural spring training camp 25 years ago was a blast]

Jack Nicklaus withdrew from two tournaments with back trouble in his career

 

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Bad backs are commonplace on the PGA Tour but repetition of the golf swing is the usual culprit. Dustin Johnson’s fall on Wednesday afternoon in Augusta is so different that nobody knew what to expect right up until the moment that the world’s No. 1 player walked off the first tee as a last-second withdrawal.

About an hour prior to his 2:03 p.m. tee time, the last of the day, Johnson started warming up on the practice range with the Golf Channel broadcasting every swing live. It was a long drama with a dud of an ending, and great disappointment for DJ and his fans and the tournament.

Jack Nicklaus spoke early Thursday morning about the uncertainty of back injuries and how they get into a player’s mind. Not just the pain, but the anxiety over how the body will react during any particular swing. As it was, Johnson had his caddy teeing balls for him on the practice range so that he wouldn’t have to constantly do the bending.

AUGUSTA, GA – Dustin Johnson of the United States practices on the range Thursday before withdrawing from the first round of the 2017 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Nicklaus only withdrew from two tournaments in his PGA Tour career. One was at the Masters, when back spasms caused him to drop out just prior to his second-round tee time in 1983. The other was at the World Series of Golf in Akron in 1981. That time Nicklaus, who was in third place heading into the final round, dropped to his knees on the practice tee and had to be helped off.

“We all have injuries,” Nicklaus said. “You go through them. I don’t know how many times, lifting the suitcase into the trunk, you pull a rib and you’re sore for about two weeks. Let’s just play through it.”

Gary Player said “Hundreds of times in life, in my 64 years as a pro, players arrived with bad injuries and they played.”

Naturally, Player turned it up a notch with his storytelling, jumping up from the interview table to demonstrate how he once hurt himself during a South Africa tournament doing squats. Oh, and by the way, he was while holding a friend on his back at the time.

“Man, he was fat,” Player said of the friend, “or, should I say, I was weak.”

Johnson slipped on some wet wooden stairs Wednesday while heading out of the garage to move a car. He was wearing socks and no shoes.

DJ came to the Masters on a three-tournament win streak.

Some bold predictions for the return of Tiger Woods this week

I have two confident predictions for Tiger Woods’ return to competitive golf at the Hero World Challenge on Thursday.

First, Tiger will easily post a top-18 finish, providing his back allows him to play all four rounds. (The reason for my high confidence is that there are only 18 players in the select field.)

FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2015, file photo, Tiger Woods watches his shot on the 12th hole during the first round of the Wyndham Championship golf tournament in Greensboro, N.C. Tiger Woods returns to competition, and Ernie Els is more curious about his head than any of his back surgeries that kept him out 15 months. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)
In this Aug. 20, 2015, file photo, Tiger Woods watches his shot on the 12th hole during the first round of the Wyndham Championship golf tournament in Greensboro, N.C. Hasn’t played since then because of back surgeries that kept him out 15 months. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

Second, at some point Tiger will go low, making the Albany Course in the Bahamas look like a resort track. (That’s because 26-under won there last year for Bubba Watson and there were only rounds above par for the entire field all week long. )

Let’s face it. This is the perfect tournament for Tiger to make some birdies and build a little confidence in his return to golf after 15 months on the shelf because of back problems.

The Golf Channel will televise it all on Thursday and Friday with help from NBC on the Saturday and Sunday rounds. Tiger goes off at noon on Thursday with Patrick Reed as his playing partner. Good, bad or indifferent, everybody will by eager to get a look at the 14-time major champion. That’s Tiger, in case you have gone to sleep on the game in his absence, and not Reed.

It’s a great field, featuring Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and more. Tiger gets in as tournament host with proceeds going to his foundation. Going by the Official World Golf Rankings alone, he wouldn’t belong inside the ropes. Tiger is 898th on a list that he once led for an astounding total of 683 weeks.

World No. 1 Jason Day isn’t in the tournament. He’s still enjoying his offseason and apparently doesn’t feel he needs the $1 million in unofficial money that goes to the winner. Doesn’t much need the points, either, though the Hero World Challenge does award world points.

Golf Digest reports that Tiger could climb about 150 spots on that list simply by finishing the tournament. That’s because of the elite nature of the competition.

Overall, this no-cut event is much better for Tiger’s return than grinding through the Safeway Open in October. That was his original plan but he withdrew prior to the tournament, not feeling quite ready for prime-time.

[Ravens have a sophisticated scoring weapon that Adam Gase lacks]

[Tebow’s Arizona Fall League has ended but look for him at spring training]

[One recent Dolphins head coach made quite an impression on Gase]

Brendan Steele won the Safeway title in Napa, Calif., with an 18-under total of 270. The field was so strong that Phil Mickelson shot rounds of 69-69-69-67 and tied for eighth place. Meanwhile, notables like Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan and 2014 Honda Classic champion Russell Henley missed the cut altogether.

If Tiger had missed the cut in his first event back, just like he missed the cut at four of his last five majors, that would have been a severe psychological blow.

Anyway, I’m guessing they’ll have the tournament on at Tiger’s restaurant in Jupiter if you’re looking to share the experience with others who care deeply about the results.

If you’re simply interested in the full-on PGA Tour, the next stop on that schedule is the Tournament of Champions from Hawaii, January 5-8.

No need to be smug, though. Everybody cares about how Tiger does. Everybody on tour. Everybody who plays or enjoys golf.