At the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in Wales, Ian Poulter did an interview with Sky Sports on the driving range before his Monday singles match against Matt Kuchar. It was the kind of thing that, in the moment, seems innocuous, but takes on greater importance when viewed through life’s rearview mirror. Poulter was 34 at the time, and playing in his third Ryder Cup. He was an accomplished player, but no one’s idea of a star. He’d played in 31 majors at that point in his career and finished in the Top 5 just once.
The narrative of Ian Poulter, Ryder Cup deity, was not yet fully formed, even in the English press, although it was clearly trending in that direction. Poulter had gone 4-1 in 2008 for Team Europe — the lone bright spot for his side as the Americans roared to victory at Valhalla — and he’d followed it up by winning two of his first three matches at Celtic Manor.
It was already clear the margin for the Europeans that day was going to be razor-thin. Every match could swing the Ryder Cup. Poulter had drawn Matt Kuchar in his singles match, the fifth out on the course, and Kuchar was undefeated so far that week, the only American without a loss. What, Sky Sports asked, did Poulter expect from their match?
Calm and steely-eyed, Poulter delivered a guarantee that would live forever.
“I’m playing well. I’m looking forward to it,” Poulter said. “I live for the Ryder Cup. That’s why I’m here. And I will deliver a point.”
That’s very confident, the reporter replied. You’re absolutely convinced you’re going to win?
“I’ll deliver a point,” Poulter said.
He let his words hang in the air like a declaration. Then he went out and thrashed Kuchar 5&4.
Europe won back the Ryder Cup by the thinnest of margins, 14.5 to 13.5.
Poulter’s nickname, The Postman, was born.
His narrative — and his legacy — was solidified.
For years, American golf fans wondered why we couldn’t find our own version of Poulter, an unapologetic rogue who raised his game in match play to implausible heights through a mixture of moxie and arrogance. It wasn’t talent the United States lacked, it was a mindset. Poulter exemplified what it meant to be an ideal teammate. He was not as talented as Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, at least in stroke play, but he seemed far more comfortable in his own skin when it came to match play. The same energy that left them rattled seemed to embolden him. Even when he wasn’t having a great season, European captains made it clear they wanted Poulter on their squad.
When Justin Thomas arrived on the scene, it seemed as if the United States had finally found its own version of The Postman. Over the course of two Ryder Cups and three President’s Cups, Thomas built a match play resume as strong as an American during the last 30 years. Not only did he win, but he did it in a way that seemed to annoy European players (and fans) the way Poulter once irritated Americans. Thomas felt like the standard bearer for a new era. No longer were U.S. captains dead set on picking 12 good players, they were picking the best team, and Thomas seemed like an essential piece. Penciling him in for foreseeable Ryder Cups seemed like a no-brainer.
It has been strange, considering all that, to see how opposed a large contingent of American fans has been to Thomas’ inclusion on the Ryder Cup team as one of Zach Johnson’s six captain’s picks this year.
No, Thomas has not had a good season in 2023. It has been, by every metric, his worst as a professional. He missed the cut in three of the four majors, he failed to win a tournament for the first time since 2015, and his Strokes Gained numbers were the lowest of his career in both putting (-0.21) and approach play (+0.37).
But whatever credibility he might have stored up over the last three years is irrelevant in the eyes of many. A huge contingent of American fans seems, bizarrely, to be hoping Thomas will embarrass himself in Italy, convinced it will prove some nebulous point about the dangers of cronyism or the “boys club.” He is, without question, the most polarizing captain’s pick of my lifetime. In 2004, Hal Sutton used one of his selections on 50-year-old Jay Haas (who was three years older than his captain!) and it was less controversial.
I cannot pretend I know how Thomas will perform in Italy. I do, however, know that United States Ryder Cup captains have consistently failed (particularly in Europe) by adhering to a failed philosophy that suggests you should pick the best players, or the hottest players, instead of the best team. Thomas’ match play record, and his overall level of talent, earned him the benefit of the doubt at the end of a season where very little went right. I feel for Keegan Bradley, who badly wanted to make this Ryder Cup team, but when Wyndham Clark and Brian Harman won unexpected majors and grabbed two automatic qualifying spots, someone deserving was always going to get squeezed.
Did Thomas’ personal relationship with Johnson and the rest of the team help him as well? I have a hard time believing it wasn’t a factor. I’m also unclear why that’s regarded by so many as a bad thing, such an egregious offense. (Americans, after all, love the idea of a meritocracy in principle more than in practice.) Europe has proven, repeatedly, that relationships are the bedrock of a winning formula. How quickly do we forget Woods and Mickelson playing so poorly when paired together in 2004 near the height of their powers, each of them sullen and barely speaking to each other by day’s end?
There is a lot riding on the Thomas selection, of course. If he plays poorly and the United States loses, it may haunt Johnson for the rest of his days, and it will likely handcuff the next American captain should they want to choose a player outside the top 12 in the standings, convinced they’re a good fit for the team room or a particular golf course. Thomas has been hard at work on his game in recent weeks, trying to rekindle old magic or old swing feels (even parting ways with his putting coach), but if he plays poorly in next week’s Fortinet Championship, the glare on he and Johnson will only intensify.
Of course, if the Americans lose in Italy, Johnson will be heavily criticized regardless of Thomas’ performance. That is the American way. In defeat, we blame the captain. In victory, we shower him with more praise than he probably deserves.
Johnson is not particularly adept at public relations. In his press conference to announce his six captain’s picks, he stumbled through what felt like an awkward defense of Thomas, saying he was “born for this” and that in the end “you just don’t leave J.T. at home.” It hardly inspired confidence. But no Ryder Cup has ever been won during a press conference.
Regardless of outcome, we empower a captain to make hard decisions, whether it’s with statistics or with his gut, otherwise we’d just use an Excel spreadsheet. The casual golf fan who detests Thomas for myriad reasons can remain convinced that Thomas is the beneficiary of a shadowy cabal that protects its own, but here is the reality: Way more goes into these decisions than the U.S. will ever reveal. It isn’t entirely statistics, and it isn’t entirely gut. Ultimately a captain has to decide who he wants standing on the first tee when 5,000 people are screaming and his heart is racing and his hands are shaking. We’ve seen the best and hottest players in the world crumble on that stage, and we’ve seen the likes of Poulter defeat players with resumes much greater than his. Johnson is taking a gamble that Thomas is going to be that guy for the U.S. knowing full well what awaits him if it doesn’t work.
You only get one shot at this. You might as well pick someone you believe is going to deliver.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org