Spotlight on: Justin Thomas targets a third victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions

The 28-year-old has struggled to convert opportunities into wins recently and Hawaii is the ideal place to change that.

The last 18 months have been maddening for Justin Thomas.

In the five years following his first PGA Tour win in late 2015 the 28-year-old from Kentucky shovelled away another 12 victories, climbing into the world's elite in the process.

He was not only frequently getting into contention, he was frequently claiming the trophy: between that first triumph and the 13th he had been top six with 18 holes to play 28 times, a ruthless conversion rate of 46%.

Since then, however, he has added one win - a sensational one admittedly and in a high-grade event (THE PLAYERS Championship) - but he's blown far more opportunities: he's been top six with one round to play no less than 11 times since August 2020 (9%).

It is something he will have spent the holiday period mulling over and his first start of 2022 gives him a great opportunity to turn things around because he's a two-time winner of the Sentry Tournament of Champions on the Plantation Course at Kapalua is superb.

Let's take a closer look at Thomas' chances ahead of Thursday's first round.

Thomas on the tournament

"It's a fun golf course, a fun event, a fun week. Sometimes you just kind of have to remind yourself you're at a golf tournament. I always get up early with the time change here, go out and play early, then pretty much hang by the pool and the beach the rest of the afternoon. There's not any other tournaments I do that the rest of the year.

"It's always the best place to start the year because it means you won the previous year. But also, a small field, the rounds go by fast playing in twosomes, people aren't really grinding and practising after their rounds. Just a laid-back kind of vibe."

Thomas a neat fit for Plantation Course

The man himself says: "Very, very generous fairways, very generous greens, they're all very big. So when it's this windy the ball-striking aspect of it isn't as difficult because you know it's not like you need to thread a needle or hit a tiny green. You still have to hit it solidly and you still have to know what the ball's doing. The hardest part is the greens. It's really, really hard to make putts when it's windy here."

Back when he was winning this title back-to-back in 2009-10 Geoff Ogilvy explained that the course is "wedge-based" and that would help explain Thomas' success on it - wedge-distance approaches are widely acknowledged as a strength of his game.

The stats back that up. In his six visits to the course he has five times ranked top six for Strokes Gained Approach and in the last three years ranked first, second and first.

Thomas on his form

At last season's Tour Championship he said: "The state of my game is good, but in terms of the year, golf-wise I would call it a poor year. I didn't play very well in the Majors. I won THE PLAYERS. That was my only win. So I got off to a good start and just kind of stalled.

"I have been working probably harder than I ever have and I've travelled more than I ever have this year. But I feel like I'm getting closer and closer to where I need to be. I'm mentally in a lot better state than I was in the middle, second third of the year, where I just wasn't really in a very good place mentally."

He definitely ended the year recording better results than he did in the immediate aftermath of the win at Sawgrass. He followed that effort with 12 starts that reaped just one top 10 finish.

He then added four top six finishes in his last six appearances.

Thomas in the outright

The raw details are impressive enough: Thomas has made six starts in the tournament and in his last five he has won twice (2017 and 2020) and finished third another two times (2019 and 2021).

But delve deeper and it's even more impressive.

In each of those four years he's recorded a top three he spent all week in the top six, meaning that a staggering 16 of his last 20 laps of Plantation have ended with him on the front page of the leaderboard.

He's also got an excellent record in the final round, going 6-for-6 at registering a sub-70 score. In a nice contrast to his recent woes, he has also always improved his position on the final day when starting it in the top six (four times in total).

Thomas in the first round

His record on the first circuit is almost as good as in the last.

Last year he finished day one tied at the top of the leaderboard and on another three occasions he was tied second. He's 4-for-6 at going sub-68 in the first round.

When last seen competing individually, at the Hero World Challenge in December, he signed the year off with a low round of the day 64.

He's available at 14/1 each way in the first round.

Thomas in a matchbet

He's been pitched against Jon Rahm this week.

The good news: he leads the head-to-head on the course 3-1, winning each of the last trio of contests.

The bad news: in 2021 Rahm lead the count 10-5 and ended the year winning six on the trot.

It was quite a turnaround because Thomas triumphed 10-7 in 2020, 6-5 in 2019, and 11-5 in 2018 - a consequence not only of a drop in the American's standards, but an improvement in the Spaniard's.

Conclusion

That frailty when in the hunt is something of a concern, as is the fact that his Strokes Gained Approach stats were generally poor in the back-end of 2020. That aspect of his game is what fuels his success in this tournament.

But his ability to play the course is unquestionable. Perhaps with those excellent round one numbers (not to mention his ridiculous ability to hang around the right end of the scoring at round's end) he's best supported in round one.

Or maybe keep it simple: he spends so much time at the top of leaderboards, back him to maintain that run.

READ MORE: Punter's pointers: The PGA Tour kicks off 2022 with the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii

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