Justin Thomas tees off on the 17th hole during the final round of the WGC - Bridgestone Invitational golf tournament on Aug. 5, 2018, at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.

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Liguori: Justin Thomas Primed To Repeat As PGA Champion

Ann Liguori
August 08, 2018 - 9:48 am

ST. LOUIS -- Of the three top storylines this week at the 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club -- whether Jordan Spieth can complete the career grand slam, whether Tiger Woods can finally win his 15th major and whether Justin Thomas can repeat as champ -- I think Thomas has the best shot at delivering.

I picked Thomas to repeat as PGA champion this past Saturday afternoon, before he won the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone by four shots. Why? He’s peaking at the right time, and his length and accuracy off the tee should be a huge advantage over much of his competition, although Bellerive, at 7,316 yards, is the third shortest course in the past 15 PGA Championships.

This major has special meaning to Thomas, as both his father and grandfather were PGA professionals, and I think that will make him even more focused and intent to win. His 86-year-old grandfather and grandmother watched him win in-person for the first time this past Sunday, and Thomas admitted getting a lump in his throat when he saw his grandfather while he was finishing up on the 18th hole. Thomas will carry that feeling and positive energy over to this week. And yes, that dominant win at Firestone gives the 25-year-old plenty of momentum heading into this championship.

I don’t see Woods winning this week. Last week at Firestone, he looked fatigued. His body language revealed some tentativeness and sluggishness. He struggled with his putting and tee shots, hitting only five of 14 fairways Sunday. He shot a 3-over-par 73 in the final round Sunday, the same as he shot Saturday, and finished tied for 31st.

MORE: Liguori: Moving PGA Championship To May Has Pros, Cons

Woods has never competed on Bellerive.

“I literally haven’t stepped foot on this golf course since that week in 2001," Woods said Tuesday, referring to when the PGA Championship was canceled because of 9/11. He said he only got to play five holes Tuesday because of rain. He’ll try to do more homework Wednesday.  

Woods didn’t play on Monday, saying: “I needed that day off. ... I spent a few times in the ice bath just trying to get some inflammation down and just trying to get ready for the rest of the week.”

He also sounds just happy to be competing again, and his body language in the press conference Tuesday didn’t resonate with confidence.

“Just the fact that I’m playing the tour again, it’s been -- just for me to be able to have the opportunity again, it’s a dream come true," he said, a statement he has echoed this entire season.

“Just coming back and being able to play at this level and compete -- I’ve had my share of chances to win this year as well, and hopefully, I’ll get it done this week.”

Winning a major is a daunting challenge for any player. For one who has undergone four back operations -- even though it is Tiger -- it’s difficult to imagine the ramifications, physically and mentally.

So I asked Woods about just that: What has been the most difficult challenge for him with this comeback -- the physical part of it, the mental part or a combination of both?

"Well, definitely more physical," he replied. "I know how to play the game of golf. It’s just, what are my limitations going to be? And as the year has progressed, I’ve learned some of those things. Certainly, I can’t do what I used to do 10, 15 years ago. But I’m still able to hit the majority of my shots, and I’ve had to learn a golf swing that is restricted. I’ve never had a spinal restriction before, and I played all those years without it. I’ve had a bum knee most of those years, but I could wheel it around that. But having a fixed point in my spine is very different.”

It sounds like Woods has accepted his physical limitations. But it also takes time to gain back the mental toughness, the focus, the confidence. We saw glimpses of the "Tiger of old" at the British Open at Carnoustie, where he played well enough to be at the top of the leaderboard for a bit on the weekend. His play showed us that he is capable of exhibiting the brilliance of old. But he hasn’t been able to sustain it four straight days.

And can Spieth contain his intensity and complete the career grand slam to become the second youngest to accomplish that feat behind Woods?

He has gone the entire season without winning a title. He’s had five top-10 finishes, including a third place at the Masters and tied for third in Houston. He put himself in position to win the British Open, but “two bad swings," he said, kept him "from controlling my own destiny to having to come from behind." He finished tied for ninth.

It would be a great story for the 25-year-old to accomplish what only five players in history have done. He is looking to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods in achieving the career grand slam.       

Thomas, Woods and Rory McIlroy get started at 9:23 a.m. Eastern on Thursday, with a 2:48 p.m. start Friday. Spieth, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose begin at 2:48 p.m. Thursday and go out at 9:12 a.m. Friday.

Follow Ann on Twitter at @AnnLiguori. Listen to "Talkin' Golf With Ann Liguori" on Sundays at 7 a.m. on WFAN.