Justin Thomas’ baffling funk continues. Now his Ryder Cup spot is in jeopardy
HOYLAKE, England — Justin Thomas’ Open Championship ended exactly as it had began, with the two-time major champion chipping…into a bunker.
It might be the most baffling sight in this game, a player’s intentions so obvious and his execution so woefully inadequate. These were very different chips, of course, but the play-by-play doesn’t really matter. Thursday’s came on No. 1, at level par, and Friday’s came on 18, at 10 over. It encapsulates the J.T. experience these days. Befuddling.
“There’s nobody that shot 82 that hit some of the quality shots that I did yesterday,” Thomas said after following his opening 82 with a second-round 71. “It doesn’t make sense. I’ll hit shots like a No. 1 player in the world, and then I’ll make a 9 on my last hole of the tournament.”
For the second straight major, Thomas is headed home after two rounds, and after getting lapped by most of his competitors. Unlike the last major, the U.S. Open, when he woke up on Friday with a chance to make the cut, Thomas’ fate this week was sealed Thursday evening, when he shot 43 on the back nine, punctuated by a closing quadruple bogey.
The two-time major winner was in no mood to speak after that messiness, and you know what, you wouldn’t be, either. Around 8 p.m., you could find Thomas gathering his thoughts on a bench outside the RLGC clubhouse, staring out across the course that had slapped him around.
His caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, had dropped off Thomas’ bag in storage a few hundred yards away and returned carrying just one thing: a putter, Thomas’ biggest source of confusion. In 2023 alone Thomas has switched putter heads and putter grips, gone left-hand low and left-hand high, constantly searching for something. He practices putting after almost every round to decompress, but when you fail to break 80, the experimenting is less optional, more necessary.
“Making two doubles and a quad, that’s 8-year-old, 9-year-old kind of stuff,” Thomas said. “Not someone who’s trying to win a British Open.”
Both the numbers and the eye test agree: This is a slump. A period of poor or losing play by a team or individual, according to Merriam-Webster. Thomas called his U.S. Open performance the “lowest” he’s felt, but was quick to add that he had another major remaining on his schedule. “If I go on to win the British Open,” he told Golf Channel that week, “nobody even remembers that I’ve missed the cut by a zillion here.” Then he missed the cut by seven shots, or half a zillion. That’s four missed cuts in six events. And yet, he addressed the media with a sense of optimism Friday. Winning 15 times before 30 years old, including two majors, will do that to a guy. Below is a sample of how he finished various answers to reporters Friday.
“I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll be good.”
“I’ll be better for it.”
“Everybody has their waves, their kind of momentum and rides and rock bottoms, whatever you want to call it,” Thomas said. “I just keep telling myself, this is it, I’m coming out of it. And I unfortunately have surprised myself a couple times with some bad rounds.”
He’s right about the waves. It was just a few months ago that Thomas was being asked about Rickie Fowler’s waves of form; Fowler dropped outside the world top 150 only to become a top-15 player again, winning a couple weeks ago in Detroit. Thomas has seen the best man in his wedding, Jordan Spieth, rise and fall and rise again. These peaks and valleys are a pro-golfer truism.
“J.T. will be just okay,” Rory McIlroy said Friday. “J.T. is one of the most talented guys out here … We all go through bad patches. That’s golf. There’s not one player in the world that hasn’t. But he’s got the right people around him, and he’s got the right work ethic to get himself out of it.”
McIlroy is surely right, but it doesn’t solve the more pressing issue, that this slump comes during a Ryder Cup year, in the few weeks before teams will be finalized. In the hunt for one of 12 spots, Thomas is currently ranked 13th. He and his would-be captain, Zach Johnson, are staying in the same house this week. (It’s always a tough look when the captain makes the cut and captain’s pick contenders don’t.)
“Bottom line is this game is really hard,” Johnson said. “There’s going to be peaks. There’s going to be some valleys. Let’s hope whatever sort of non-peak [Justin’s] in, it’s short. I know he’s got a great team. I love his coaches. I love how he — he works. He’s a worker.
“Guys with talent like that that work and aren’t afraid to put their work in the dirt, if you will — not to be cliche — typically find it. It’s just a matter of when, not if. He’s too darned good.”
It was a gracious answer from Thomas’ housemate. And one with which many observers agree. He is too darned good. Thomas admitted he now has to rely on his previous record — “I mean, it’s not like I’m going to write [Zach] a love letter, or anything,” he said — while remaining hopeful that his game can also do some talking in the next few weeks. That’s why he’ll soon be flying to Minnesota for an event, the 3M Open, he’s never played before. Opportunity beckons.