If Dan Patrick were calling the highlights for Justin Thomas at the Plantation Course at Kapalua, he likely would use one of his go-to phrases: “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.”
Thomas, a two-time winner of the Sentry Tournament of Champions and the defending champion of the Hawaii limited field event, posted his fourth first-round score of 67 or lower at the Plantation, this time recording eight birdies in a bogey-free round of 65 to share the first round lead with Harris English.
The 27-year-old Thomas, who was paired with World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, birdied his first hole of the day and went on a tear of four birdies in a five-hole stretch beginning at the fifth hole to tour the first nine in 5-under 31. He was making it look easy until he flared his tee shot to the right into the thick stuff and required help from A.J. Johnson, Dustin’s brother and caddie, to avoid a lost ball penalty.
“I owe a big thank you to A.J. for stepping on my ball and finding that one for me,” Thomas said. “Yeah, it was a bad tee shot, I tried to hit it low and I just leaned on it a little bit and that’s what kind of caused it to squirt right.”
Thomas hacked back into play, hit a short iron to 38 feet and drained the par putt.
“Those par saves can definitely be a little bit more momentum boost than a birdie sometimes,” Thomas said. “I’m a big fan of bogey-free rounds so that putt was nice to keep it that way.”
He added birdies on the next two holes and capped off the day with a birdie at the par-5 18th. On a day when the wind didn’t blow and the course was there for the taking, Thomas did what he had to do in his bid to become the first repeat champion of this event since Geoff Ogilvy in 2010.
“You need to have a solid first round, I mean, that’s for sure,” he said. “I think this is a tough place to play way from behind, if you go shoot even or 1-under on the first round it’s hard to post consecutive rounds of 7-, 8-, 9-under, no matter where you play. But it is nice to do that, I understand that there’s a lot of golf and a lot of really good players within four, five of the lead and 54 holes left. So, I just need to go out and do a little bit more of what I did today and hopefully a little bit better in some areas.”
Another player who took advantage of the conditions was Harris English, who made his first appearance in the winners-only event since 2014. Except English didn’t win last season to get in. Due to the global pandemic canceling numerous tournaments, the Tour made an exception and the Tournament of Champions extended invites to anyone who finished in the top 30 of last season’s FedEx Cup standings, thus earning a spot in the Tour Championship.
“It was nice for us to get the invite back and it’s always nice starting off the year here in Kapalua,” English said. “It’s one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen and the golf course is a lot of fun.”
English, 31, has been on a roll, notching five top-10s in his last nine starts and ended the year with an unofficial victory in the QBE Shootout, where he teamed with Matt Kuchar. Anxious to build on last year’s success, English spent time in La Quinta, California, site of the Amex in two weeks, to breakup the trip to Hawaii.
“I wanted to play as soon as I could,” he said.
When asked what was the key to shooting 65 in the opening round, English said, “Really everything.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Patrick would’ve tabbed English “en Fuego” after hitting all 15fairways, 15-18 greens and taking just 26 putts. The highlight for English was a chip-in eagle at the par-5 ninth hole, which helped him vault to the top of the leaderboard with Thomas as he seeks his first win since the 2013 Mayakoba Golf Classic.
“That kind of gave me some good ‘mo’ going into the back nine and just made some really good putts,” said English, whose 8-under par 65 was his lowest opening-round score in relation to par on Tour. “I mean, I felt like I hit my irons well, I hit my wedges well, and just gave myself a lot of chances out there today.”
Sergio Garcia led a logjam of six golfers two strokes back after 67. Brendon Todd, one of the Tour’s shortest drivers, was paired with Bryson DeChambeau, the Tour’s longest driver, and shot 5-under 68 to beat him by a stroke. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson struggled to shoot 71 and was tied for 30th.