NAPA. Calif. — Justin Thomas committed to a driver change, tinkered a little with his swing and got immediate results with a 5-under 67 that left him four strokes off the pace Friday in the Fortinet Championship.
It was exactly what the former top-ranked player needed after going winless during the FedExCup season, taking some time off and then struggling through the first round in Napa. One of four U.S. Ryder Cup team members at Silverado Resort, Thomas feels much better about his game than he did a short time ago.
S.H. Kim played in the afternoon and made six birdies and one bogey for a 67 and a share of the lead with Sahith Theegala (64) at 12-under 132. Kim had a chance to pull ahead on his last hole, but left a 24-foot putt short and had to settle for par.
Sangmoon Bae (66) was third at 11 under, a shot ahead of Eric Cole (66).
Two-time defending champion Max Homa, also on the Ryder Cup team, had a 66 to match Thomas at 8 under. U.S. captain Zach Johnson (74) and co-captain Stewart Cink (72) were tied at 1-under 143 and missed the cut in the final tune-up to the Ryder Cup in two weeks.
Thomas, using a new driver with a shaft nearly an inch longer, was much more crisp off the tee and got longer, more accurate drives as a result.
Thomas said he’s been practicing using the new driver for about three weeks and is pleased with the results, saying he may never switch back. He hit 8 of 14 fairways Friday and had an average driving distance of 340 yards.
“If I drive it like I did today, I’ll use it for the rest of my career,” Thomas joked.
More significant than the change in equipment for Thomas was a slight alteration to his swing.
“Even as a golfer we’re the first to blame anything and everything else, but it was me,” Thomas said. “I could tell in one video I was getting stuck underneath it. So I had a good thought just from a little 10-minute range session yesterday afternoon that I felt like could get me through today, and it worked pretty well.”
Theegala, winless on the Tour, felt pretty good about his own round that included a holeout for eagle out of a greenside bunker on No. 5.
That helped him relax even more than he already was, an attitude he carried into Napa after stressing about the tournament in year’s past when the Fortinet was the season-opening event.
Thomas hit it long and straight off the tee on Friday, shooting 5-under 69.
That’s not the case anymore, as the tournament in Napa is the first of seven that comprise the FedEx Fall.
Players who didn’t finish in the top 50 can continue to earn points, with those finishing the fall 51st-60 getting exemption for the first two signature events of 2024 while players within the top 125 retain their Tour cards.
Theegala, 31st in points, is already locked in for next season and was able to focus primarily on his round Friday.
“The last couple years I was super nervous Monday through Wednesday, but this Monday through Wednesday I was really relaxed and kind of just felt like another tournament,” Theegala said.
Starting on the back nine, Theegala got off to a quick start with birdies on three of the first six holes. After a bogey on the par-4 16th, Theegala got back on track and got to 10 under with the eagle on No. 5 before closing his round with birdies on two of his final four holes.
“If I could just get my tee shots in play and get the driver under control, I feel pretty good about the rest of my game,” Theegala said. “I did not do that today. I got really fortunate, I got a couple really nice breaks.”