Zach Johnson’s decision to include Justin Thomas on the U.S. Ryder Cup team was many things.
As perhaps you’ve heard by now, it was controversial. Thomas had the worst season of his professional life in 2023, failing to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time as a professional and failing to seriously contend at a major for the first time in almost as long. Worse yet, things appeared to deteriorate as the season wore on, with Thomas’ play resulting in missed cuts in five of eight events to close out his 2023, including an 82-71 disaster in his last start on European soil at the Open Championship.
It was also disappointing. Particularly so to American Ryder Cup hopefuls like Keegan Bradley, who had committed years’ worth of effort to earning a spot on the roster, and whose recent resume outweighed Thomas, but who found himself on the outside of the U.S. Ryder Cup bubble.
But one thing Thomas’ inclusion on the team was not, according to Thomas’ future competitor Rory McIlroy? Surprising.
On this week’s episode of GOLF’s Subpar, the four-time major champ joined hosts Colt Knost and Drew Stoltz to talk all things Ryder Cup, and he took a moment of time to voice his support for Johnson’s decision to include Thomas on the American roster — and for Thomas’ Ryder Cup candidacy at large.
In McIlroy’s estimation, the argument for JT begins and ends very simply: he is the player some people on the European side would like to face least.
“I don’t think so, I thought the whole JT thing — the whole conversation around it was unjustified,” McIlroy said. “In my opinion being a European, and knowing that I have to see some of these guys — honestly there’s there’s other guys on the team that I’d rather face than JT.”
The Ryder Cup isn’t about picking the best golfers, Rory argues, but rather about picking the golfers who will beat their opponents. McIlroy knows this particularly well. As a member of the European side that has gone undefeated on home soil for the last three decades, he’s seen firsthand the benefit of picking the best match-play team — and not necessarily a golf all-star team.
Two of the Euro superpowers in this stretch of dominance have been its cohesiveness and emotional ruggedness. Those are the things that come when you prioritize winning the Ryder Cup over picking the most “qualified” team. Those are the things that come with picks like Justin Thomas, whose history in the event and fit with the U.S. roster remain unimpeachable.
“As a European, to me, it was a no-brainer,” McIlroy said. “Even though he’s not had the best year and he struggled to perform, JT is still one of the first guys you put down on that team sheet for the U.S. I thought it was a no-brainer.”
Time will tell if Johnson — and by extension, McIlroy — are correct in their assertions. We’re a little less than two weeks from the start of the Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome, where Thomas will have three days of competition to prove his captain (and competition) right. He will be under no shortage of pressure to do so, but if his 6-2-1 all-time record in the event is any indication, Thomas is ready for the challenge.
To hear the rest of Rory’s Subpar interview, including lots more Ryder Cup talk and his memory of playing with Michael Block during his legendary final round at the PGA Championship, check out the link below.