Why is struggling Justin Thomas at this Ryder Cup? Ask Jordan Spieth
ROME — There’s a Ryder Cup putt that Justin Thomas still thinks about all these years later. It was in 2018, during his debut, on the 14th hole of Le Golf National, in the French countryside.
Jon Rahm and Ian Poulter were doing exactly what you’d expect — making a run. They were 2 down after 12 before Rahm won the 13th. Then Rahm made birdie on 14 and lit up an eager European crowd. Thomas had eight feet left on a birdie putt of his own, the exact distance from which professionals make half and miss half.
While his ball was still rolling, Thomas yanked his left hand up behind his ear, staring down the crowd. An instant later, when the ball dropped in the hole, Thomas whipped around so everyone could get a glance. I can’t hear you! That, in part, is why Thomas is here in Italy. He has done those things. And Team Europe knows it.
Of course there is the 30-year winless drought for American Ryder Cup teams on European soil, and there’s also the lone LIV Golfer in the field — Brooks Koepka — but the most intriguing story of this Ryder Cup has been decided for months: how will Justin Thomas fare?
The 30-year-old has seen the highest highs in the sport but this summer in particular he faced some awfully low lows. Failing to break 80 in multiple major championships. Missing the FedEx Cup Playoffs. He even admitted Tuesday that after the latter was decided, the idea of actually not playing in this Ryder Cup finally hit him. It was out of his hands. He had to accept it.
But Thomas has shined so brightly in these team events the PGA of America actually invited him to join its Ryder Cup Committee, which helps make decisions for American success. Not even captain Zach Johnson gets a seat at those meetings. So it feels fair to ask the question: Thomas watching from home in Florida — how would that feel?
A bit weird. European press are already comparing him to Poulter, the English thorn in America’s side. Rory McIlroy doesn’t exactly want to face off against Thomas in the Sunday singles. He knows what that’s like. There was Thomas’ 5th-place finish at the Fortinet Championship two weeks ago, which everyone knows about. But there was also the recent matches against Xander Schauffele in Florida, which we didn’t know about. One ended in a tie, and the other?
“He smoked me,” Schauffele said.
Schauffele typically doesn’t reveal much during his press conferences, so that was a win for everyone. Thomas, on the other hand, is often rather revealing. Only getting a question in during a 15-minute maximum press conference proved difficult for this reporter on Tuesday, with questions about his form, mental approach, keeping receipts from doubters, etc., taking precedence. Instead, we got our question in via text:
What is sweeter — making a putt to electrify a home crowd, or making a putt to silence a crowd on the road?
That’s tough, he said, eventually deciding that, overall, it’s the putts that send a home crowd into pandemonium that are sweetest. But then he specified a difference. If the putt comes late in a match, or possibly to win, he’d rather it be on the road. That’s what got him thinking again about that birdie putt against Rahm and Poulter in France. ”I’ll never forget [it],” he said. It sounds like his partner Jordan Spieth won’t, either.
“The elevated pressure and honestly the away games and kind of the opportunity to go like that, like he does,” Spieth said, raising his own left hand behind his ear. “To raise the crowd up, the home crowd, but also to quiet one and upset them here. He loves doing that, and it creates maybe just a little extra level of focus for him.
“I’ve been beside him for these Ryder Cups, and he quite simply plays better golf than the guys across from him.”
Until that stops being true, enough said.