NAPA (AP) — Justin Thomas didn’t get much rest during the four weeks between seasons. The 2017 FedEx Cup champion helped raise money for hurricane victims in the Bahamas, spent two weeks recovering from minor skin cancer surgery, then flew cross country to California to male his season debut in the Safeway Open.
With the obvious exception of the skin cancer, it was about as perfect a break as Thomas could have expected.
“It really was,” Thomas said Wednesday. “I feel very refreshed. I was excited to come here, when in past years I probably wasn’t excited to come to the first event because I was still kind of over golf. But I’m very, very ready to get this season going and feel like it could be a great year.”
Thomas got an early read on the par-72, 7,166-yard north course at Silverado Country Club while pairing with former NFL quarterback and current CBS analyst Tony Romo in the pro-am. The duo shot 1-under 71, seven shots off the lead.
Romo will also be playing in the Safeway Open on a sponsor exemption. Because he’s scheduled to work Sunday’s NFL game between the Vikings and Bears in Chicago, Romo will bypass his day job to play the final two rounds if he makes the cut.
Asked if he’s spending his evenings studying the Vikings and Bears or the greens at Silverado, Romo smiled. “I do both. I’ve got enough time.”
Phil Mickelson and NBA star Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors were four strokes better at 5-under 67. Teams led by Corey Conners and Marc Leishman finished tied for first at 8-under 64.
Curry and Mickelson drew the biggest crowd as several hundred fans lined the fairways, many of them wearing Warriors jerseys and screaming out Curry’s name as the two-time MVP walked past.
“You saw him dropping all kinds of bombs off the tee, just hellacious bombs, deep and very accurate, certainly straighter than what I have,” Mickelson said about Curry. “He was in the fairway most of the day and played exceptional. That’s why he’s such a good golfer and can compete at a very high level.”
Thomas is looking to get back on top.
He felt he played some of the best golf of his career in 2018-19 yet only had one win to show for it — at the BMW Championship at Medinah in August. That came the week before the season-ending Tour Championship where Thomas entered with the overall points lead but left without a second title following a disappointing tie for third.
Eager to put that behind, Thomas heads into the Safeway Open as one of the favorites to win among a field that includes Mickelson, defending tournament champ Kevin Tway and Hall of Famer Fred Couples.
“It’s a ball-striker’s course,” Thomas said. “You have to be smart, and that’s something that I think I’ve gotten a lot better at. When you get out of position, just don’t force it. That’s when you start making bogeys.”
That Thomas chose to make his debut at the Safeway Open after skipping the tournament the previous two years seems appropriate as he tries to put the disappointment of last season behind.
In four previous trips to the picturesque course nestled at the foot of wine country in Napa Valley, the 26-year-old has had mixed results. He placed 72nd in 2013, missed the cut the following year, placed third in 2015 and was eighth in 2016.
The Safeway Open had traditionally been the season opener after the PGA Tour went to wraparound schedule in 2013. This year it was moved back to the third stop, making it easier for Thomas to return after skipping the event the past two years.
Still, Thomas expects some rustiness after his offseason was disrupted by a skin cancer scare following a routine visit to a dermatologist. A mole on Thomas’ left calf was discovered to be in the early stages of melanoma and treatment was done quickly, putting his offseason on hold.
Thomas called it an eye-opening experience.
“They cut a pretty good-sized chunk off my leg,” said Thomas, who has a long scar to remind him. “I couldn’t do nothing, like literally nothing, for two days. I couldn’t put in any kind of long days of practice. Then I got the stitches out (Monday).”
Tway is trying to become the second player in tournament history to win in back-to-back years after he beat Ryan Moore on the third playoff hole last season.
Tway played a practice round Tuesday when he re-lived the memory of winning at Silverado a year ago.
“I was like, ‘I’ll always make this putt,’” Tway said. “It was fun relishing in the moment again.”