By MICHAEL WAGAMAN
NAPA, Calif. (AP) — Justin Thomas has a lot of work to do at the PGA Tour’s Fortinet Championship this week. Most importantly, he has an opportunity to sharpen his game ahead of Ryder Cup two weeks away.
Thomas, the former No. 1 player in the world who was a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup, hasn’t played since finishing 12th at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina on Aug. 6. He is looking forward to getting back on course.
“With the way the season ended last year, I just didn’t want to go take that long off (from) competitive golf,” said Thomas, adding he didn’t picked up a club for two weeks after his season ended. “It worked out even better after getting picked for the Ryder Cup to get some competition under my belt before going there. I haven’t gone this long without competitive golf in a while so I’m excited.”
Thomas is one of four members of the Ryder Cup team playing at the Silverado Resort in the heart of the Northern California’s wine valley. He joins two-time defending champion Max Homa, U.S. captain Zach Johnson and assistant captain Stewart Cink, who won in Napa in 2000.
Homa at No. 7 is the only player from the top 10 in the world in Napa. He is trying to become the first player to win the same tournament three straight years since Steve Stricker at the John Deere Classic from 2009 to 2011.
Cink expects that the hype over Thomas and Homa will be overblown one way or the other.
“I think it’s inevitable that whatever Max and J.T. do this week will be overstated to the good or to the bad,” Cink said this week. “I hope they both win. I don’t think that’s possible, but I hope they both win.”
For most other players, the fall portion is all about is about positioning for the start of 2024.
The FedEx Cup standings from Aug. 14 carry over, and the top 125 after this seven-tournament stretch will retain full PGA Tour cards. The leading 10 players outside the top 50 will be eligible for the first two $20 million signature events at Pebble Beach and Riviera.
Thomas fits into that category, though he likely would get one of the four sponsor exemptions for the big-money events. His focus is squarely on ending a stretch of 16 months without a victory.
“All it takes is one week, one stretch, that can just completely flips everything and nobody even talks or references it any more,” Thomas said.
Thomas confirmed he has quit working with putting coach John Graham and has reduced the role that his father, Mike, had as his swing coach. There were no major reasons for the splits other than Thomas felt he needed to be more accountable for his own mistakes.
“They were there too often to where I became too dependent on them,” Thomas said. “Then I just lost all ownership, all accountability to where when things went wrong, I was looking to them to answer the questions instead of I’m the one that needs to figure it out at some point.”
Thomas also tinkered with his swing and is in the midst of changing to a longer driver.
“I’m fortunate where I’m already on the Ryder Cup team so I don’t need to prove anything for that,” he said. “I’m just going to go out this week and try to play as well as I can.”
Thomas recently joined Homa and the rest of the U.S. Ryder Cup team on a trip to Italy as part of a scouting trip to the course where that competition will be played.
Homa, who made his U.S. team debut in the President’s Cup last year, was blown away by what he saw.
“Just standing on the first tee when we went out there last weekend, with zero people there, was insane,” Homa said. “The President’s Cup was so exciting and it was so raucous and wild. I had a few people tell me it’s nothing compared to what the Ryder Cup will be.”
Homa finished the season tied for ninth so his status for 2024 is secure. The top 50 are guaranteed to get in all the $20 million events. His focus at Silverado is walking away with a win for the third consecutive year.
“I would love to win this three times in a row,” Homa said. “I told Stricks as we left Rome that I’d love to shake his hand in two weeks and tell him we’re the last two people to win three times in a row. I love this tournament. This has always been a special week for us.”