NAPA, Calif. — Justin Thomas scuffled through an uneven afternoon with a 3-under 69 in his return to the PGA Tour following a lengthy layoff, leaving him six shots off the lead Thursday in the first round of the Fortinet Championship.
Thomas, the former No. 1 player in the world who was a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup, had hoped to clean up his game in a final tune-up, but wasn’t nearly as sharp at Silverado Resort as he hoped.
Playing for the first time since finishing 12th at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina, on Aug. 6, Thomas made four birdies and worked around a bogey on the par-4 ninth. He was tied for 20th, chasing Lucas Herbert, the leader after a 6-under 63.
“Sometimes after some time off it’s hard for me to get back into it, but I didn’t feel very competitively rusty,” said Thomas, who hit three of 14 fairways. “I was very engaged and focused on what I was doing. I just wasn’t exactly doing it how I wanted to.
“I was managing my game. It’s exactly what I did at the Wyndham. Today wasn’t a day with how I hit it I was going to shoot 6- or 7-under. Three under with how I feel I hit it was a great thing.”
Herbert, who took a seven-week mental break from playing, came back looking much stronger and crisper than Thomas. Herbert had 10 birdies — seven over his final nine holes — to overcome an early bogey.
Max Homa, the two-time defending Fortinet champion and U.S. Ryder Cup team member, endured a rough morning with a double bogey and bogey on his way to joining Thomas at 69. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson also shot 69. Co-captain Stewart Cink, a winner here in 2020, had a 71.
Herbert, a 27-year-old Australian ranked No. 59 in the world, needed a big spark after entering the FedEx Fall 152nd in points. The top 125 players after the seven fall tournaments retain their full PGA Tour cards for 2024.
“Found a little groove there,” Herbert said. “It felt like anything I did poorly seemed to work out nicely for me and the good shots got rewarded as well. Felt like I played OK and just got a lot of good breaks, and capitalized on chances as well.”
Herbert needed just 22 putts to finish the round in the heart of the Northern California’s wine valley. His lone mistake was a bogey on the par-4 16th when he missed a 16-foot putt for par.
In the past that might have lingered in his mind the rest of the afternoon, but after taking nearly two months off to “reset” himself, Herbert kept his cool and got on a roll on the back nine.
“Me two months ago, I probably wouldn’t have shaken that off as much,” Herbert said. “I would have been a little harder on myself.”
After a birdie on No. 10, Herbert parred No. 11 then rolled off six consecutive birdies before ending his round with par on the par-5 18th. The 63 wass two shots shy of the tournament course record of 61 shared by seven players, most recently Ricky Barnes in 2018. Barnes shot a 71 on Thursday.
It was a nice way for Herbert to return in his first tournament since missing the cut at British Open on July 23. That was when Herbert decided he needed to take a sabbatical and clear his mind.
During the time off Herbert stayed in America rather than heading home to Australia. He traveled to Maine to spend time with his girlfriend’s family and kept away from golf.
“Just needed to get away from the game and refresh everything,” Herbert said.
The only player from the top 10 in the world playing in the Fortinet Championship, the seventh-ranked Homa ran into trouble with a double bogey on No. 4, a 367-yard par 4 after his drive out of bounds and hitting a recovery shot that landed in a greenside bunker.
That pushed Homa further back into the field as he attempts to become the first player to win a tournament three straight years since Steve Stricker at the John Deere Classic from 2009 to 2011.
“Just one bad swing that led to a double and then a bad wedge shot that was quite frustrating,” Homa said. “Other than that, I actually felt like I kept it in front of me pretty good. Didn’t do anything special to get going anywhere, but overall it was solid. I don’t think anything stuck out as overly bad or overly great. It was a decent day.”