SEOGWIPO, Jeju Province — PGA Tour star Justin Thomas battled through windy conditions to win a tournament in South Korea last year. And he doesn’t think Mother Nature will be any different this time around.
Thomas is back as the defending champion at the $9.5 million CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges, which begins Thursday at the Club at Nine Bridges on the southern island of Jeju.
The world No. 4 shot a blistering nine-under 63 in the first round a year ago, before ballooning to 74 and 70 over the next two rounds. He managed a 72 in the final round and beat Marc Leishman in a playoff.
At his pre-tournament press conference Wednesday, Thomas said wind could once again play havoc with the players.
“The wind plays a huge role in how the ball lands and how it reacts. There’s a premium on hitting the fairways because of how windy it is and how severe the greens are,” Thomas said. “It’s really just about hitting your shots solidly and starting them on line and making sure you’re missing them in the correct spots when you do miss them. It’s going to be very difficult for everybody.”
And stats bear out Thomas’s view. During the 2017-2018 season, the Club at Nine Bridges had the fourth-highest scoring average at 73.19.
Thomas, who went on to win two more tournaments in the 2017-2018 season after CJ, said the wind doesn’t just affect ball-striking.
“Putting is so hard in this wind. You can have a two or three-footer and if the wind picks up, you’re not going to make it,” he said. “That’s just the fact of the matter.”
And the unpredictable nature of the severity and direction of the wind means it’s difficult to prepare for these conditions, Thomas added.
“I don’t think you can necessarily play a practice round and say, ‘OK, when it’s like this, I am going to do this,’ because it changes so much,” said Thomas, who played 27 holes in practice and pro-am over the past two days. “It’s more about hitting golf shots and feeling it out there.”
Thomas is coming off a top-five showing last week at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. He admitted he didn’t play well in the first three rounds, and said scrambling to finish that high without his “A” game was as gratifying as winning.
But he isn’t putting any added pressure on himself as the defending champion this week.
“(The status as the defending champion) doesn’t affect anything. At the end of the day, I am still here trying to win the golf tournament and play the best that I can,” he said. “The fact that I won last year maybe gives me more positive vibes and different positive memories that I can maybe look back on. As a whole, it definitely doesn’t change my expectations or change anything I am trying to do.”
Thomas said it is “pretty overwhelming” to receive such strong support from South Korean fans — “I don’t technically know what I’ve done to deserve it,” he said — and he feels welcomed here once again.
“I like the food here, and Korean beef is pretty hard to beat,” Thomas said. “Any time I can have good food, I am a happy person.”
Thomas, the 2016-2017 PGA Tour Player of the Year, has been paired with world No. 3 Brooks Koepka, who followed Thomas with his own top player honors for the last season. The two good friends will be joined by Jeju’s own Im Sung-jae, a PGA Tour rookie.
“We’re definitely going to have a big following, and it won’t be for Brooks and myself, that’s for sure,” Thomas quipped. “Hopefully, we can go out and play some good golf and give people something fun to watch.” (Yonhap)