Justin Thomas is one of those players who doesn’t like to share his goals until the end of the season.
Except for one.
He wants to win, because that means he gets to start the year at Kapalua.
“I hope that is my first tournament of the year for the rest of my career,” Thomas said.
He’s not alone, of course. Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson do. So does Rickie Fowler, who probably needs to get back here more often. This was only the third time that Fowler has played in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
It seems so obvious.
Who wouldn’t want to come to Maui the first week of January and play against a small field with no cut while looking down from the Plantation Course at the occasional breach of a humpback whale in the Pacific waters that separate Maui from Molokai, the island that looks much closer than eight miles away?
Tiger Woods, for one.
Woods won at Kapalua in 2000 in that epic battle with Ernie Els. He never finished out of the top 10 in six appearances, but then he stopped coming after 2005 and chose to start his season a few weeks later at Torrey Pines. That was his choice, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it sure cost the tournament a lot of buzz, because Woods brings that everywhere he goes.
Phil Mickelson is another.
Lefty won this tournament twice at La Costa. He played Kapalua twice, in 1999 and 2001, never broke 70 and never came back. Mickelson didn’t like how the wind and the various shots off uphill and downhill lies affected his game for the rest of the West Coast swing.
There was a time not long ago when the perception of the Tournament of Champions was that it had lost some luster. Spieth didn’t have a PGA Tour card. Johnson was not among the top 20 in the world. Some of the top players were European, who played too deep into the previous season and started too far away in the Middle East to venture over to middle of the Pacific Ocean for one week.
Five years ago, the winner at Kapalua received 38 world ranking points. Only two tournaments on the PGA Tour schedule awarded fewer points than the winners-only field at Kapalua — the FedEx St. Jude Classic and the John Deere Classic.
And now there is a new generation of players.
The field featured the top five players in the world, and the winner gets 56 points, high for a tournament with just 34 players. Johnson is No. 1 in the world. Spieth is among the most popular players in the game. Thomas might join him if he has another year like last season.
Rory McIlroy for the first time wanted to put Kapalua on his schedule. Just his luck, he didn’t win on the PGA Tour for the first time since 2013.
And it’s not just Kapalua.
The AT&T Pebble Beach was another tournament that more than a decade ago was thought to be getting stale.
That was another one in which Woods had left his mark with an amazing comeback in 2000. He stopped playing it in 2003, and while Pebble has enough iconic qualities that it’s bigger than any player, it missed him.
Now, it could have one of the strongest fields — with no built-in advantages like a World Golf Championships event — ahead of the Masters. Spieth loved it even before his long-term deal with AT&T. So did Johnson, a two-time winner, and Jason Day. Mickelson never misses. Add to that mix McIlroy, who is playing for the first time this year. Jon Rahm played last year and is coming back. U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka returns.
Kevin Kisner found himself without a caddie at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas when his regular, Duane Bock, heard a pop in his knee. Kisner was able to use the caddie of good friend Scott Brown the next day because the Bahamas is a short flight away from the U.S.
It wasn’t so easy for Justin Thomas when his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, was relegated to wearing a protective boot for his plantar fasciitis after two trips around the Plantation Course at Kapalua, which was built on the side of a mountain. So he put his father, Mike Thomas, to work on Saturday.
Thomas was lucky. He didn’t have to search far for a top caddie, hiring Jim “Bones” Mackay to help him at the Sony Open next week. Mackay was the caddie for 25 years for Phil Mickelson until they split. Mackay was hired by NBC and Golf Channel as an on-course reporter, and he likes it so well (and is doing so well) that he figured his days as a caddie were over.
Now he’s back, at least for a week.
Experience? No doubt. Course knowledge? Not so much.
Mickelson never played the Sony Open. Mackay last worked at Waialae Country Club for Scott Simpson in 1992, the year before Thomas was born.
Doug Ferguson is a golf reporter for The Associated Press