October 25, 2016

SHANGHAI (AP) Winning a PGA Tour event for the second straight year, especially the manner in which Justin Thomas rallied in Malaysia, made it easy to assume that a player of his polish and power could be on the verge of breaking through to the next level.

Consider the last two weeks.

Thomas began the new season with birdies on his last two holes to make the cut on the number at the Safeway Open, and two days later he was on the cusp of contention. His amazing run ended when he missed three straight birdie chances inside 6 feet to start the back nine, and he settled for a 66-67 weekend to tie for eighth.

Last week in the CIMB Classic, after seemingly shooting himself out of the tournament at 4 over through 13 holes in the third round, Thomas finished with five straight birdies to salvage a 71, and then closed with a 64 to win by three shots.

Leave it to the 23-year-old Thomas to find some self-deprecating perspective amid rising expectations.

''If you look at it, I had a better start last year,'' Thomas said Tuesday during a light day of work at the HSBC Champions. ''Last year, I had a third and then a first. This year, I was eighth and first. So I'm slumping.''

That only suggests Thomas is not about to get carried away. The season is two tournaments old, and he still has much to prove.

After he won in Malaysia last year for his first PGA Tour victory, Thomas never showed up on a leaderboard on the weekend until the Florida swing. Two of his best finishes came from brilliant closing rounds - a 65 at The Players Championship and a 62 at the Travelers Championship.

So while he finished at No. 11 on the money list with just over $4 million, and he was invited to Hazeltine for a practice round on the weekend before Davis Love III made his final captain's pick for the Ryder Cup, his satisfaction went only so far.

''I really don't think I had that good of a year,'' Thomas said. ''I won. And I had some good finishes. But the consistency was not there.''

That's the first step.

Thomas doesn't like saying that he is expecting more out of his game this year because that would suggest his expectations were ever any lower. He feels his game is better, his head is a year wiser. He is learning.

''I'm excited for what this year brings,'' he said.

That doesn't make it easier. The PGA Tour is loaded with promising players from his age group. Thomas is part of the high school graduating class of 2011 which has produced three of the last four players to win rookie of the year - Emiliano Grillo, Daniel Berger and Jordan Spieth.

Ahead of him in age are the likes of Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson.

Thomas believes his game is good enough to stack up with them, and he should. But that's potential talking. Thomas prefers to speak the language of results. He still only has two victories, one more than Berger and Grillo, eight behind Spieth, and even more behind Day, Johnson and McIlroy.

''I have to do a lot more before I can get in the same conversation,'' Thomas said. ''I feel like I'm as good a player, but results don't lie. They've won more tournaments. They've contended in more majors. And I haven't done that.''

Thomas is determined to ride the momentum this time around. He enjoyed his time off at the end of last year and didn't feel as though he started the new year as prepared as he should have been. This year, he plans another trip to Asia for the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, and he's in the Franklin Templeton Shootout.

He is not willing to share his goals publicly. He did that his rookie season and felt he was reminded of what he wasn't doing right.

Some of the goals would seem to be obvious without saying anything. Win tournaments. Win or contend in majors. Play in the Presidents Cup. Challenge for the FedEx Cup. Some goals are based on statistics, such as improving his scrambling.

His father Mike, a longtime club professional in Kentucky, is geared more toward the process. Thomas tends to think more of results. So he asked everyone close to his game - Thomas, his father, caddie Jimmy Johnson and teacher Matt Killen - to submit their own list of goals that they can check at the end of the season.

Was his mother not asked to participate?

''Mom's was to have fun and respect others,'' he said.

The laughter suggested Thomas was joking, though that's never a bad place to start.

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