Thomas wins eighth title as Tiger shows signs of life

Thomas wins eighth title as Tiger shows signs of life
Justin Thomas eyes his five-wood to the first playoff hole. @PGATour

Justin Thomas eyes his five-wood to the first playoff hole. @PGATour

The Bear Trap took a chunk out of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy as Justin Thomas beat Luke List at the first extra hole to claim the Honda Classic and his eighth career win.

As McIlroy finished 59th on nine over, his hard work on Sunday undone by a quadruple-bogey seven at the 17th in a three-over 73, Woods’ slim title hopes were dashed when he found water and doubled bogeyed the 15th, then three-putted the 16th en route to a 70 a hugely encouraging 12th place finish on level par.

The title went to Thomas (24), who had to lay up at the 18th but then hit a 117-yard gap wedge to three feet, almost making eagle, before holing the putt for a 68 to List's 69 to force a playoff on eight-under par.

"It never entered my mind [to go for the green in two]," said Thomas, who got a big break at the fifth when his tee shot at the fifth ricocheted off the rocks short of the green and almost went in for an ace, leading to an easy par.

"The rough out here is so penal. It's so long, and my ball was sitting down. It just was never an option to try to go for the green. Even if I did, it's not like I was going to make a three. I was going to make a four at the best, and I have a lot of confidence in my wedge game."

Returning to the par-five 18th for sudden-death, it was List who had to lay up from rough after a leaked tee shot and the reigning PGA Tour "Player of the Year" who blasted a five-wood, 262 yards over water to 40 feet from the first cut of rough.

After lagging his putt down to three-and-a-half feet short of the hole, Thomas watched List miss from 17 feet for birdie and tapped in for his eighth career win and his seventh in his last 31 starts. 

To put his winning run in perspective, he has claimed six titles (including his first major at last year's US PGA) since McIlroy took the 2016 Tour Championship for his most recent victory.)

After holing the putt, his euphoric "F**k Yeah!" was clearly audible on the TV coverage.

Q. I know sometimes guys don't remember exactly the moment of euphoria, but do you remember what you said when the winning putt went in? It was fairly apparent on television?
JUSTIN THOMAS: Yeah, I do. (Laughter) I didn't know that was obviously going to be on TV or I wouldn't have said it. I'm sorry. Please don't fine me very much, PGA Tour

Yeah, that's not something I wanted to get on TV. It just was an emotional win and I was happy to get it done. You know, it was an exciting -- what I said, it obviously wasn't out of frustration or anything. I did not know that was on TV, so I apologize to anybody that heard it, or everybody that heard it.

Thomas, who had a rowdy fan ejected for heckling during the round, followed a birdie at the third and a bogey at the ninth with a  birdie the 13th to tie for the lead on seven under.

He then got up and down for crucial pars from the rough at the 15th and 17th before matching List's birdie at the 18th.

After leapfrogging pal Jordan Spieth to become world No 3 — his goal is to become No 1 — he was only marginally happier than Woods, who felt he took “a big leap” back in just his third comeback event on tour after back surgery and boasted a bigger gallery than the winner.

"It wasn't anything remotely close to Tiger's," Thomas said of the crowd following the final group. "But he fully deserves that and he is the needle. He moves the needle. He's the reason probably why the attendance this week was as high as it was, and you know, they weren't coming out here to watch Luke List and Justin Thomas. They were coming out here to watch Tiger, so I don't blame them. I'd go watch him, too, instead of me."

Despite his late mistakes at the 15th and 17th, Woods was thrilled to finish 12th. 

"I gave myself a chance at it," said Woods, who played the famous three-hole stretch in a costly eight-over par for the week to McIlroy's four-over but was ranked first for proximity to the hole and second for driving distance.

"I was three under par with four holes to go, and if I get two or three more coming in, I could have posted early. 

"I've made a big leap this week because I really hit it well and I was able to control it. It’s not easy to do, especially in this wind, and  was able to do it for most of the week."

He also said: “My expectations have gone up. I’m hitting the ball better. I knew I could putt it, I knew I could chip it, but I didn’t know how well I was going to hit it.

"I've had to get used to certain things. I can't do what I used to do. I can't hit the same shots, the same body positions. They are different. I'm just going to have to -- I'm getting used to it. I'm getting more accustomed to it and I'm very pleased about what has transpired, especially this week."

As for McIlroy, his Jekyll and Hyde start to the season continued as his late quadruple bogey undid all his good work on the final day.

Cruising along at two-under for the day, he ballooned his tee shot into the lake at the 170-yard 17th, exclaiming, 'Oh, Rory!' as he put his hands on his head, then found water again from the drop zone before finally finding dry land at the third attempt.

It was an anticlimactic end to the round for the Co Down man (28), who bogeyed the first and 12th after bunkering tee shots but holed putts of 12, 27, 19 and 38 feet for birdies at the third, fifth, 13th and 15th and missed just one putt inside 10 feet.

On a day when Shane Lowry made six birdies in a morale-boosting 67 to finish tied 49th on seven-over par, McIlroy will be happy with his improvement on the greens but will be less than thrilled with the start of his US season.

After shooting 40-under for eight rounds in the Middle East, finishing third in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship and second in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic respectively, he's six-over for the 11 rounds he's played on the PGA Tour so far, breaking par in just three of them.

He doesn't need to be told that his wedge play still needs work while he also hit just 50 percent of his fairways, and only five yesterday, finishing near the back of the field for driving accuracy.

As Tommy Fleetwood —fourth on six-under after a 69— said of playing the tough courses on the US circuit, "whether you play really good or you play really bad, it's such a good judgment of where you are."

His Masters preparations will continue at the Valspar Championship next week as he skips this week's WGC-Mexico Championship, which will also be without Lowry, who needed to win yesterday to qualify.

With just one top-10 finish in 25 US starts since he was tied second in the 2016 US Open, world No 73 Lowry now has just five weeks to win in the US or make the world's top 50 if he's to make a fourth successive Masters start.