Justin Thomas got his Ryder Cup dream. It could become his nightmare
Justin Thomas cast his wish three weeks ago.
“I mean, I want to make the Ryder Cup team so bad,” he said. “It’s so important to me. I mean, I legitimately would rather make the Ryder Cup than the [FedEx Cup] Playoffs, which is really, really messed up to say, but it’s just the truth.”
In hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t that messed up to suggest, because it was precisely what happened. After the most dismal stretch of play of his career to date, Thomas missed the FedEx Cup playoffs. Then, after three playoff weeks at home, he was selected to the U.S. Ryder Cup team above the likes of playoff qualifiers Keegan Bradley, Cameron Young and Lucas Glover.
U.S. team captain Zach Johnson’s decision to include Thomas on the team should not come as a surprise. Thomas has a prodigious match play pedigree, is considered one of the U.S. team’s emotional leaders, and is longtime friends with Johnson, who clearly placed an emphasis on familiarity in his captain’s pick selections. His performances in past team events and the general makeup of his game (crafty, poised, relentless) make him a tantalizingly powerful match play competitor, a point that likely outweighed his last six months.
But that does not avail Johnson or Thomas of the risk that comes along with this decision, the stakes of which are clear as day. It is a gamble — the gamble — that will come to decide his captaincy.
In picking his pal, Johnson has raised the attention significantly on the construction of a U.S. roster hoping to glean the first American victory on European soil in three decades. Should the Americans find success in Rome, Johnson will be a genius and Thomas’ last six months will be vanquished. Should they find failure, Johnson will be vilified and Thomas demonized.
That much was clear from even a cursory glance around the golf world in the aftermath of Tuesday’s announcement, where Keegan Bradley — another experienced, impassioned American — offered his sincere “disappointment” at not being selected from the American side; and where fans from across the golf world criticized Johnson’s decision as spurning the team’s “best” construction in favor of upholding an American “boys’ club.”
On the surface, it’s hard to argue their point. Thomas has missed more cuts this summer (five) than he has top-10 finishes in 2023 (three). He had more rounds in the 80s at majors (two) than he did made cuts (one). After a disastrous showing at the Open Championship, he entered the 3M Open and Wyndham Championship in a last-ditch effort to make it into the FedEx Cup Playoffs and save face for the Ryder Cup. He missed the cut at the 3M, then missed the playoffs anyway.
There were other players on the brink of a roster spot who hadn’t carded an 80 in months, and it was fair to wonder Tuesday why those players will spend September at home while Thomas packs for Italy.
“In my mind, he was born for this,” Johnson responded. “You just don’t leave JT at home.”
And so Johnson did not leave JT at home. But that will not quiet the conversation about whether he should have in the weeks leading up to Rome, and it certainly will not quiet the conversation if Thomas finds himself struggling again when balls are in the air at Marco Simone.
Thomas certainly hears those criticisms. At the Wyndham Championship three weeks ago, he was the first one to offer them.
“I think that’s why I played so poorly the last month and a half or two months. Like it’s just I’m putting so much pressure on myself to play well [for the Ryder Cup], it’s very similar to what happened to me in 2016,” he said. “I felt like I started to try so hard at the end of the year when if I just would have kept doing what I was doing and trust my ability and my talent, then it could have been good enough.”
There will be no shortage of pressure coming Thomas’ way now. He enters Rome as the team’s most scrutinized player by a significant margin. There will be nowhere to hide if the week doesn’t go according to plan, and this time the burden of blame will be much heavier. This is stress like Thomas (and Johnson) have never faced before — the self-inflicted kind.
“Some guys are kinda built to walk into the lion’s den,” Johnson said, setting the stakes very clearly. “I’m confident in these six guys to do just that.”
It’s fair to point out that Johnson’s gamble could very well pay off. It’s easy to see a world where Thomas leads the U.S. side, as he has in the last eight years’ worth of team events, to another impressive, impassioned performance. It’s also fair to point out that some of the golf world is expecting it will not. So we are left acknowledging that Tuesday morning was the fulfillment of a yearlong dream for Justin Thomas. The hard part will be fending off the nightmare.