Thomas returns at Sony Open and scene of scoring records


By DOUG FERGUSON - AP Golf Writer



Defending champion Justin Thomas chips onto the 18th green during the first round of the Tournament of Champions golf event, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, at Kapalua Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Matt York)


HONOLULU (AP) — The Sony Open is where Justin Thomas broke the PGA Tour’s scoring record, starting with his 59.

And it was that round when Jordan Spieth got a taste of his own medicine.

Thomas and Spieth were paired together for the opening round at Waialae Country Club, and no one celebrated more than Spieth when he watched his longtime friend make eagle on his 18th hole for a 59 .

But here’s what was so amazing about that round: Spieth actually had better chances.

Spieth was an average of 18 feet, 4 inches on his approach shots, best in the field for the first round. Thomas averaged 25 feet, 7 inches, ranking him seventh. Not only was Spieth closer to him most of the round, at times they were on the same line. On one hole, Spieth had to move his mark for Thomas to putt for birdie (he made), and then Spieth had the same putt from a shorter distance (he missed).

“I was like a stroke-and-half or something better tee-to-green than he was that round, I got beat by like seven shots,” Spieth said with a laugh.

It was only six shots (Spieth only shot 65), but it felt like more. And by the end of the week, Thomas broke or tied records at every turn until he had a seven-shot victory and a 253 for the lowest 72-hole score in PGA Tour history.

Thomas finished the season with five victories, his first major, PGA Tour player of the year and the FedEx Cup title. He has talked about the challenge in following up such a season, and that starts with avoiding comparisons.

That will be tough at the Sony Open, especially for the first round Thursday. And it probably didn’t help that Thomas, despite closing with three pars and failing to birdie the par-5 18th, shot a 61 in the pro-am on Wednesday (with pins in the middle of greens).

The Sony Open is the first full-field event of the year, and 124 of the 144 players have had nearly two months off.

The European Tour also resumes its season by co-sanctioning the BMW South African Open. The Web.com Tour season begins in the Bahamas, and a few LPGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions players get to warm up in an official event in Florida called the Diamond Resorts Invitational. In a Ryder Cup year, Europe gets a dress rehearsal with some players who are taking on Asian players in the EurAsia Cup in Malaysia.

PGA TOUR

Thomas, Spieth and Daniel Berger — who all graduated from high school in 2011 — were in the same group last year. This year might be even better for Thomas, who begins his title defense Thursday afternoon alongside Jason Dufner and Kevin Kisner. It seems Thomas (Alabama) and Kisner (Georgia) made a bet on the college football title game . The result is that Kisner plans to wear an Alabama jersey on the 17th hole.

Even being in Hawaii, it’s not all fun and games.

Former PGA champion Jimmy Walker is cautiously optimistic having trudged through a difficult year in which he finally was diagnosed with Lyme disease.

“I’m a lot better physically,” Walker said. “There’s a mental and physical part to go along with Lyme disease. I physically feel a lot better. Mentally, I haven’t played golf in a while. So, we’ll see how all that starts, how all that goes. But I’ve been working on the game, working on my body. Since September, I’ve been able to put 10 pounds back on. Feel a lot healthier. It’s incredible just what feeling good can do for you and for your confidence, too.”

Morgan Hoffmann is playing for the first time since revealing in The Players Tribune that he has muscular dystrophy.

Luke Donald can only hope the start of this year is the better than the end of last year. He felt chest pains in the pro-am of the RSM Classic and checked into a hospital. Tests came back clean and he settled into a holiday season full of rest.

Television: Thursday-Saturday, 7-10:30 p.m. (Golf Channel); Sunday, 6-10 p.m. (Golf Channel).

EUROPEAN TOUR

Ernie Els begins his 30th year at home for the BMW South African Open, a field that includes Retief Goosen, Charl Schwartzel and Trevor Immelman.

The Big Easy finished fourth in his South African Open debut in 1989. The field that year included John Daly, two years before his rookie season on the PGA Tour.

The defending champion is Graeme Storm, who beat Rory McIlroy in a playoff. McIlroy discovered a crack in his ribs a few days later.

Television: Thursday-Friday, 3-5 a.m., 7-10 a.m. (Golf Channel); Saturday-Sunday, 5-9:30 a.m. (Golf Channel).

LPGA/CHAMPIONS

While the Diamond Resorts Invitational in Orlando, Florida, is unofficial, it marks the start and the end for Gerina Piller. She is pregnant with her first child and plans to take off 2018 and return next year. The baby is due the first week of May.

Piller joins Brooke Henderson, Brittany Lang and Brittany Lincicome. The PGA Tour Champions serves up defending champion Woody Austin, John Daly and Joe Durant among their players. There also is a celebrity component that includes retired pitcher Mark Mulder, tennis player Mardy Fish and Roger Clemens.

Television: Friday-Saturday, 1:30-4:30 p.m. (Golf Channel); Sunday, 1-4 p.m. (Golf Channel).

Defending champion Justin Thomas chips onto the 18th green during the first round of the Tournament of Champions golf event, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, at Kapalua Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Matt York)
http://www.wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2018/01/web1_119613751-a6d31dcdaf004c8d9e769e3f23869a6d.jpgDefending champion Justin Thomas chips onto the 18th green during the first round of the Tournament of Champions golf event, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, at Kapalua Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Matt York)

By DOUG FERGUSON

AP Golf Writer