At final major of 2023, Ryder Cup questions (and some answers) become more clear
HOYLAKE, England — The Ryder Cup is two months away, and undoubtably the biggest question mark for U.S. captain Zach Johnson is the lackluster play of Justin Thomas.
Johnson knows he can’t avoid the question. Heck, he can’t avoid Thomas, either. They are sharing a house this week. But Thomas’ play is among the leading curiosities as these obligatory Ryder Cup talkers begin to take shape and the biennial event draws closer.
Thomas, a two-time major champ, shot his worst career major score on Thursday (82) and missed the cut here at The Open, his third missed cut in a major this season. He recorded a T9 at the Travelers last month, but in his three starts before and after he hasn’t finished better than T60.
He’s also in danger of missing the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and on Friday he committed to the 3M Open, a last-minute addition to bolster his standing and make the lucrative season-ending series. A good showing there would go a long way in helping his Ryder Cup standing, too. Thomas sits 13th, with six players auto-qualifying and six to be picked by Johnson.
As a friend, Johnson said he’s concerned because he knows what Thomas is capable of. As a Ryder Cup captain? Johnson knows Thomas’ value.
“I don’t know his record off the top of my head,” said Johnson, speaking to the media after he shot 69 to make the cut on Friday. “But I know it’s pretty good.”
It is. Thomas is 6-2-1 in two Ryder Cups (and 16-5-3 overall including Presidents Cups) and has formed a dynamite partnership with Jordan Spieth, two players who also inject a ton of energy into the event and their team.
“Experience is an element,” Johnson said. “I would say individuals that have really played well in that should be or can be a part of the pot, stew, if you will, of creating it. But I’ve seen both sides of it. A guy that isn’t in great form that’s got a lot of experience goes in and plays great. Ian Poulter would be a great example of that, right? Brings out his best when he’s called upon.”
Thomas’ 82 was followed by an even-par 71 on Friday. He admitted afterward he’s probably trying too hard to make the Ryder Cup team, much like he did when he first started out on Tour.
“I’m in a very similar position,” Thomas said. “I’ve been trying to make it easy on Zach and get in the top six, but I seem to not want to do that with my golf.”
While it still seems unlikely Thomas might be left off, there are others who could make it more difficult for him. Like Brian Harman.
Harman has never played in a Ryder Cup, but he’s 20th in the standings and leading The Open through 36 holes. A win would launch him into the top six and all but guarantee his spot on the team. Even a strong finish without a victory would go a long way in making it hard for Johnson to ignore him.
Several other Ryder Cup questions became more clear this week, too. We already know LIV players won’t be allowed on the European team, but they are still eligible for the U.S. squad. That made this week even more important, since LIV players can’t earn valuable points in their events and have to rely solely on majors.
Brooks Koepka, thanks to his PGA Championship win, will most likely be on the team, even if he doesn’t auto-qualify (he’s third now). But this week might have ended Dustin Johnson’s chances. He shot 81 Friday to miss the cut and, at 35th in the standings, seems too far down to be picked, even though he was a perfect 5-0 two years ago and has won a couple of majors.
Additionally, it’s hard to imagine Zach Johnson looking past names like Rickie Fowler or Tony Finau for Dustin Johnson, who is well-liked but did leave the Tour that Zach Johnson and others stayed loyal to for LIV. Will that matter to Zach Johnson? We’ll see.
One might also wonder if the momentum is evening out. The Americans won 19-9 at Whistling Straits in 2021, but a quick top-eight comparison proves, on paper, things might not be as lopsided as that score suggests.
This season, the below European group leads the Americans 8-7 in wins, although the U.S. has 58 top 10s to Europe’s 49. (Worth noting 15 of those top 10s belong to Scheffler, Koepka’s total counts only three major starts and five of MacIntyre’s six top 10s were on the DP World Tour.)
USA TOP 8 / EUROPE TOP 8
Scottie Scheffler / Rory McIlroy
Wyndham Clark / Jon Rahm
Brooks Koepka / Robert MacIntyre
Xander Schauffele / Viktor Hovland
Patrick Cantlay / Matthew Fitzpatrick
Max Homa / Tyrrell Hatton
Keegan Bradley / Tommy Fleetwood
Jordan Spieth / Shane Lowry
This year will also signal the changing of the guard for Europe. The DP World Tour said the players who resigned their membership will not be eligible, which means long-time stalwarts like Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter won’t be on the team.
Most might have been left off anyway — Garcia, for one, was superb at Whistling Straits — but this year it will be official: it’s McIlroy and Rahm’s team now.
This week certainly made some decisions more clear for both sides, but there’s still lots to sort out. In Hoylake, and in the coming weeks.
“I want all these guys to make my job difficult,” Johnson said. “That’s what I signed up for. I want them to want to play. It’s that fine line between going out there and playing for something bigger than you, but then it’s also — as I’ve told these guys, whether it’s via text or in person, you’ve got to stay right where your feet are and play today for today, whether it’s the round, the hole, the shot, whatever it may be.”