Justin Thomas & Hideki Matsuyama: PGA Tour's in-form pair ready to win majors

Hideki Matsuyama & Justin Thomas
Hideki Matsuyama is now sixth in the world and Justin Thomas 12th after impressive recent form

It is an event that promotes Hawaiian tourism more than it provides signals for the golfing year, but last week's Tournament of Champions could prove more significant than usual thanks to the outstanding performances of its top two finishers.

Champion Justin Thomas and runner-up Hideki Matsuyama both appear ready to mix it with the game's leading figures in the biggest events of 2017.

It would be no surprise if either or both landed first major titles this year.

Yes, this scenic January gathering on the PGA Tour is a gentle affair, with a limited field restricted to winners from the previous year. But Thomas and Matsuyama both showed they had not lost any of their increasingly impressive edge during the Christmas break.

World number one Jason Day was taking his first, relatively rusty steps back into the competitive arena after three months off and headlined a field that included US Open champion Dustin Johnson and US PGA winner Jimmy Walker.

Two-time major champion Jordan Spieth and Ryder Cup hero Patrick Reed were also competing, yet Thomas and Matsuyama separated themselves from these elite chasers to maintain the impressive momentum they had built towards the end of 2016.

While Thomas triumphed, his 24-year-old Japanese rival came second to continue an extraordinary run of form. In his past six tournaments Matsuyama has won four times and now been runner-up twice.

The only player to have beaten him in this sequence is Thomas, who also triumphed by three strokes when he successfully defended the CIMB Classic in Malaysia in October.

Matsuyama's hot streak began a couple of weeks earlier with a fifth place at the Tour Championship. Since then, he has picked up two titles in Japan, as well as the WGC HSBC Champions crown in Shanghai and Tiger Woods' Hero World Challenge.

Hideki Matsuyama with the WGC HSBC Champions trophy
Matsuyama is top of the Fed Ex Cup standings with 1,150 points

Last Sunday, an eagle at the 14th in the final round in Kapalua piled pressure on Thomas, who then steadied himself after a double bogey at the 15th to claim his fourth professional victory.

"I think it's potentially floodgates opening," Spieth said of his 23-year-old compatriot's promise, after he finished three shots clear of Matsuyama.

"The guy hits it forever. He's got a really, really nifty short game. He manages the course well," Spieth added. "It's awesome to see."

Thomas was unlucky to miss out on a wildcard debut in last year's US Ryder Cup team. The Kentucky youngster admits that he feared he was losing ground on contemporaries such as Spieth, who is already a Masters and US Open winner.

"I think it drove me a lot," Thomas said. "I wasn't mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating sometimes seeing some friends and peers my age do well - not because I wasn't cheering for them, but because I feel like I was as good as them. It's just immature of me.

"I mean, the fact of the matter is, over the course of a long career, we're going to beat each other. That's just how it is.

"I think now, I feel so much more comfortable. I really do. Maybe the first time in Malaysia when I won [in 2015], I was kind of like, what am I doing here?

"But now it's like, OK, I belong here. I should be here."

Justin Thomas
Thomas' motto is 'No excuses - play like a champion'

Thomas, now ranked 12th in the world, and Matsuyama will remain in Hawaii to continue their rivalry in this week's Sony Open at Waialae CC in Honolulu. Spieth is also competing, along with Olympic champion Justin Rose.

Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson were the only members of the world's top six who did not play last week's tournament. McIlroy comes out of hibernation to take part in the South African Open in Gauteng, which starts on Thursday.

The Northern Irishman is embarking on a busy schedule that provides a strong opening to the European Tour year. He will play the following week in Abu Dhabi and joins Tiger Woods in the field for February's Dubai Desert Classic.

Off the course, the Tour as a whole has made an impressive start to 2017 by attracting Chinese money to bolster the French Open.

Played at the end of June, the tournament will be known as the HNA Open de France and with a prize fund in excess of $7m (£5.75m) becomes the eighth event in the elite Rolex Series.

The idea behind these big-money tournaments is to provide Europe's young stars with a viable alternative to the PGA Tour.

If they succeed in this objective it can only raise standards and, as Thomas and Matsuyama have just demonstrated, they are already sky-high on the other side of the pond.