Justin Thomas was named PGA Tour Player of the Year for 2016-17 a week ago today, certainly a top highlight (along with winning the PGA Championship, his first major) for the fledgling 24-year-old pro who is beginning to get his world-class legs beneath him.
Three days later, he already was on a plane to Malaysia to start his 2017-18 season. So much for all that chilled champagne, pool time and the big exhale. When Thomas left his home in Jupiter, Fla., on Saturday, he started the timer on his iPhone for the long journey to Kuala Lumpur. When he touched down, his phone read 28 hours, 17 minutes, 46.91 seconds. It’s more than your average puddle jump, for sure.
On the PGA Tour, there’s always good reason to pack the bags in hopes that they will get to their far-away destination. This week’s CIMB Classic, comprising players from three tours (PGA Tour, Asian Tour, PGA of Malaysia) is a $7 million, limited-field event (78 players) with no cut that offers $1.26 million to the winner. For Thomas, the CIMB is where it all started. He won the tournament in 2015, collecting his first PGA Tour victory, and again last October (his second). In eight rounds at TPC Kuala Lumpur, he has been out of the 60s only once.
Pat Perez is nearly twice Thomas’ age (he’s 41), but he took off for Malaysia last fall for very different reasons. He was rebounding from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder that took away most of his 2016. He had 15 starts on a major medical extension to keep his card in 2016-17 – since 2002, his rookie season, he’d never lost it – but he wasn’t expecting to play until January 2017, at the Sony Open in Hawaii. When PGA Tour vice-president and CIMB tournament director Todd Rhinehart phoned Perez last year and offered him a sponsor exemption, it simply was too good to pass up.
Why would Perez, who has 402 career PGA Tour starts, travel so far to play in one tournament?
“I’ll give you have two reasons,” Perez said at the Tour Championship. “Free money, and free (FedEx Cup) points.”
And then he quickly came up with another: “Three, free (plane) ticket. I mean, it’s a no-brainer. You’ve got to go.”
Here is the series of dominoes that tumbled for Perez as a result of his start in Malaysia:
After opening with a 74, he played his next three rounds in 10 under to tie for 33rd. Two weeks later he felt ready to play in Las Vegas, where he tied for seventh, which earned him a spot at the OHL Classic in Mexico in November, and there he won for the second time in his 16-year career.
Those three weeks totally set up his season, one that finished with Perez making it to his first Tour Championship. Malaysia, Perez said looking back, gave him a chance to “get four days under my belt and get moving.”
Adds Perez, “The amazing thing about it is I didn’t think I was going to start until Sony if I didn’t get that spot, so all of this may not have happened if I didn’t go finish seventh in Vegas and then win at Mayakoba, and I was already top 3 in the FedEx … I mean, who knows what would’ve happened at Sony? I could have gone there and finished 60th and gotten two points, and who knows what happened on the West Coast because I would have felt a little more pressure only with 14 more starts?”
Who knows? He’s glad he got on that plane to Malaysia.
Three of the seven tournament winners from the fall portion of the 2016-17 made it to East Lake and the Tour Championship. A fourth, Brendan Steele (who repeated at Safeway on Sunday), was in position and inside the top 30 at the Tour’s third playoff event, the BMW Championship, before his T-44 finish cost him a spot.
Malaysia marks the first of three PGA Tour events that will be staged in Asia this month. The CJ Cup at Nine Bridges will debut next week in South Korea, on beautiful Jeju Island, followed by the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, China.
Thomas will tee it up in Korea after Malaysia, then will return home to Florida.
“When I get there (to Asia), saying it now, it’s hard to think of how motivated – not motivated, but how ‘ready’ I’ll be,” Thomas said shortly before embarking on that 28-hour trip abroad. “But I know once the gun goes off on Thursday and I’m ready to get it firing, then I’ll be ready to go, and I’ll definitely get back in that competitive mind-frame sort of thing.”
After this two-week stretch, Thomas will play only once more in 2017, competing in the small-field Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. The event doesn’t start until Nov. 30, which finally – finally – will give him ample time to enjoy family, some turkey and ‘Bama football before he has to get back to work.
In the meantime, a third CIMB title would make his break that much better. That’s why he’s there.