JERSEY CITY, N.J. — On this powerhouse U.S. squad Phil Mickelson is the father figure, Jordan Spieth the alpha male, Patrick Reed the soul, Kevin Kisner the goofy cousin from the country providing comic relief. In this, his first Presidents Cup, Justin Thomas assumed an outsized role: the heartbeat of the U.S. team.
It’s not just that Thomas went 3-0-1 in partner play, it was the panache he exhibited along the way. Twice he made improbable birdies on the 14th hole, directly in front of the Liberty National clubhouse, and Thomas’s lusty celebrations led to two of the biggest roars of the week. It’s not a surprise that 2017’s player of the year summoned fine golf. Among the Americans, only Dustin Johnson brought home more points. But on a team of superstars he immediately became one of the biggest personalities, marrying the swagger of a recently minted major champion with the gee-whiz enthusiasm of a rookie.
“I’m a little hoarse,” Thomas said, a nod to all of his on-course whooping and hollering. “That’s a first for me.” Though the jingoism of these team events can feel rather forced, Thomas’s came by his patriotism naturally. He spoke movingly of taking the ferry every day from Manhattan to the course, crossing the water in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. “I get goosebumps,” he said. “It’s a great kind of symbolic statue for us and our freedom, and just how lucky we are to be Americans and how awesome it is to be representing the United States.”
It’s not an accident that Thomas was sent out in the first match on Thursday, and he and Rickie Fowler provided a 6-and-4 beat-down of Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and Hideki Matsuyama, the highest-ranked player on the International team. That win set the tone for everything that followed. Though Fowler had played in three Ryder Cups to Thomas’s zero, it was JT who offered the pep talk on the 1st tee: “Come on, we need to bring it today. This is going to be a tough team to beat.” Afterward, he said, “They were hanging tough. But, man, we just kept fighting, and to win that was huge for us.”
Batting second on Friday, Thomas-Fowler beat the Internationals’ grittiest team, Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace. “I made a couple good birdies early and I rode my horse on the way in,” Fowler said.
In a rematch on Saturday morning, Thomas made a do-or-die six-footer on the 18th to secure a gritty halve. That afternoon Thomas was sent out with Daniel Berger, to that point the only American who had yet to secure a point. Facing Matsuyama again, alongside Jhonny Vegas, who had played some of the best golf of the week for the Internationals even before dusting Spieth in singles, Thomas guided the U.S. to victory. No doubt that gave Berger the confidence he carried into singles, when he beat a game S.W. Kim to secure the clinching point.
As the U.S. lead grew ever bigger throughout the week, Thomas went out of his way to warn teammates against getting “complacent.” Added Thomas, “It’s the same thing that all of us deal with when we’re trying to win a golf tournament. You can’t think about the future. You have to think about what you’re doing now. That’s what I feel like we especially did a really good job of.”
Despite making eight birdies, Thomas lost his singles match on Sunday, 3 and 1, to a deeply motivated Matsuyama but no matter; he had done enough. It is a testament to Thomas’s grit, professionalism, team spirit and patriotism that he was able to summon so much emotion and passion at the tail end of such a breakthrough season, just days after winning a life-altering $10 million FedEx Cup bonus. There is now only one more thing left on his to-do list: Ryder Cup hero. By the looks of things at Liberty National, that will happen soon enough.