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.

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My unscientific method for predicting who will contend for Honda title this week

Here are the names I’m expecting to make some noise at the Honda Classic this week.

First, look to the guys are playing well at the moment. Scott Brown, Thomas Pieters, Wesley Bryan, Ollie Schniederjans and Cameron Tringale all had top-8 finishes last week in Los Angeles. They’re the hotshots.

Sergio Garcia reacts to putting his drive in the fairway on the 6th hole during the final round of the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida on February 28, 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Sergio Garcia reacts to putting his drive in the fairway on the 6th hole during the final round of the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida on February 28, 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Next, look to the players who had top-10 finishes at the Honda last year, guys like Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia, the 2016 champion and runnerup, plus Blayne Barber and Justin Thomas and Graeme McDowell and Rickie Fowler. They’re the Honda hardheads.

Brown, who tied for 10th here last year, is the only one who belongs in both groups. I’ll circle his name, then, and keep a close eye on his opening round, which starts at 12:55 p.m. on the No. 10 tee.

Hey, it’s all guesswork in the end. Justin Thomas has been hot as a firecracker, for instance, and this morning he is missing fairways all over the place and scrambling to keep it together – 3 over par through 11 holes. That’s especially dicey since the morning rounds figure to be lower than the afternoon, when the wind normally picks up.

 

Honda Classic won’t have Tiger but many young lions remain, and they’re plenty dangerous

Tiger Woods’ withdrawal due to injury last Friday surely hurt the Honda Classic’s appeal with the casual fan, and so does Rory McIroy’s expected absence while resting a sore rib, but those who follow golf more closely will still see some of the world’s hottest players in the field.

Not talking “hot” as in some kind of high-profile recognition factor with the general public but more in terms of who is playing the best at the moment.

HONOLULU, HI - JANUARY 15: Justin Thomas of the United States celebrates winning on the 18th green after the final round of the Sony Open In Hawaii at Waialae Country Club on January 15, 2017 in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
HONOLULU, HI – Justin Thomas of the United States celebrates winning on the 18th green after the final round of the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club on January 15, 2017 in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Take Justin Thomas, 23, of Palm Beach Gardens. He was the only player in the field to shoot all four rounds in the 60’s at last year’s Honda, which earned him a tie for third place. More than that, Thomas already has three victories in the PGA Tour 2016-17 wraparound season that opened last fall, including back-to-back January wins in Hawaii.

All of this has pushed Thomas to No. 8 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and high on that same list are some Honda entrants who may not be so familiar here but are killing it on the European Tour.

Danny Willett, the defending Masters champion, you already know about, but how about Tyrell Hatton and Matthew Fitzpatrick, who also are from England?

Hatton had top-10 finishes at the British Open and the PGA Championship last year and already in 2017 he has a couple of top-three’s on the European Tour.

Fitzpatrick, only 22, won the DP World Tour event in Dubai last November and tied for seventh at last year’s Masters. He’s a former U.S. Amateur champion, too.

Getting back to the PGA Tour, five golfers who have won tournaments this season are in the Honda field.

They are Thomas (CIMB Classic, SBS Tournament of Champions, Sony Open), Brendan Steele (Safeway Open), Mackenzie Hughes (RSM Classic), Hudson Swafford (CareerBuilder Challenge) and Cody Gribble (the Sanderson Farms Championship event played opposite the elite HSBC Champions, a World Golf Championship tournament).

Not exactly headliners but remember the 2014 Honda Classic, where Russell Henley, a one-time winner on the PGA Tour, beat McIlroy and three others in a playoff.

You never know what’s going to happen in a sport ruled by 20-something’s.

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Australian Adam Scott is the defending Honda champion. He went nine-under for 72 holes on PGA National’s Champion course. That was one stroke better than Sergio Garcia, who also is back last year and on a hot streak himself. Just two weeks ago the Spaniard won the Dubai Desert Classic by three strokes.

Players have until Friday night to confirm their participation in the Feb. 23-26 Honda field, which means there could still be a few big names to come.