HOYLAKE — If you are someone who is ready to bury Justin Thomas, who looks at the two-time major winner and sees a golfer who is lost and broken, I get it. Things are not great at the moment. Watching him miss the cut at the Open Championship by a mile, his third missed cut in a major this year, was painful. He looked, in his post-round press conference at Royal Liverpool, like his eyes were welling up with tears when he answered questions about potentially missing the Ryder Cup.
If this isn’t the nadir for Thomas, then heaven help him.
I would, however, like to offer some advice to anyone who believes Thomas is cooked, based on my own memorable folly in this area.
There is a good chance he’ll make you feel foolish.
He is going to figure this out, even if he doesn’t seem close to doing so right now.
I believe U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson should heed that warning as well, just in case he starts to overthink things. American captains have a tendency to overthink, and Thomas is one of the players who helped the United States bury those bad habits in team competition.
Thomas needs to be on the American Ryder Cup team. To leave him home when the Americans go to Rome and try to snap a 30-year losing streak on the road would be a massive mistake.
I know what some of you are thinking: Wasn’t the American task force supposed to blow up the buddy system? Shouldn’t the United States lean into the idea that a meritocracy is the best method for putting together a team?
I’m imploring you, don’t be a prisoner of the moment. This isn’t someone without a body of work to draw on. This is the best TEAM competitor America has produced since Lanny Wadkins. Thomas drives his opponents batty in match play. If he’s on your squad, he’s the best kind of obnoxious. He’s one of Rory McIlroy’s closest friends, and in Ryder Cups, McIlroy wants to strangle him. He is a menace, the closest thing America has to our own Sergio Garcia, the rare player who is the best version of himself when he’s playing for something bigger than himself.
“I want to make the Ryder Cup more than anything,” Thomas said Friday after shooting 71 in Round 2 of The Open. “I'm probably honestly trying too hard to do it. It reminds me a lot of my first or second year on Tour. I tried so hard to make that team for the first time. I'm in a very similar position. 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.”
Is Thomas currently lost? Admittedly, it looked that way on Thursday when he shot 82 and made a mess of 18, taking nine shots to wrap up his final hole.
“Making two doubles and a quad, that's eight-year-old, nine-year-old kind of stuff, not someone who's trying to win a British Open,” Thomas said. “You just can't do stuff like that.”
But there were also signs of stability on Friday, signs that Thomas — even though he had no chance of making the cut — was searching for a feel rather than going through the motions. On the 14th hole, his drive bounded into the right rough, leaving him a buried lie. He took a vicious lash at the ball, then watched it trundle toward the green and stop just short of the surface. His third, a low, running chip with spin, banged off the flag and dropped into the cup for a birdie. The roar from the crowd inspired a weary-but-appreciative smile from Thomas, who tried to take a philosophical approach after the round.
“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. It doesn't mean a day's good play like today doesn't get a spark going.”
It’s very possible that Thomas is deep in denial mode. But for now, I’m okay with that. If he needs to lie to himself to boost his confidence, he wouldn’t be the first great player to use that tactic.
“There's nobody that shot 82 that hit some of the quality shots that I did yesterday. It doesn't make sense,” Thomas said. “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. I don't know if it's a focus thing or I'm just putting too much pressure on myself or what it is, but when I figure it out, I'll be better for it.”
I’ve heard several rumors this season that Thomas is injured, that he’s been trying to play through pain instead of opting for surgery, but he’s never mentioned it, so I finally got the chance to straight up ask him: Are you healthy?
“I feel fine,” Thomas said. “My wrist was a little sore because I hit it in the fescue and bunkers so many times yesterday, but it's fine.”
What about his diet? Thomas revealed earlier this year that, at the request of his nutritionist, he’d agreed to cut out gluten for a year and dairy for six months. He was frequently feeling fatigued and hoped that might lead to more energy. I was curious: Had that been hard to stick to that approach considering it seemed to coincide with his worst season as a professional?
“Yeah, I wish I felt worse so I could say it was that,” Thomas said.
It’s possible we need to slip Thomas a plate of carbs before the Ryder Cup, but even if that doesn’t happen, I suspect he’s still going to be part of the U.S. team in Rome. Johnson, who is actually rooming with Thomas this week, certainly knows what an asset he’s been on previous American squads.
“Obviously he's a stalwart in that event, right?” Johnson said. “I don't know his record off the top of my head, but I know it's pretty good. Bottom line is, this game is really hard. There's going to be peaks. There's going to be some valleys. Let's hope whatever sort of non-peak he's in, it's short. I know he's got a great team. I love his coaches. I love how he works. He's a worker. Guys with talent like that [who] 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. I might be slightly concerned, like I said, as a friend, but I'm not worried about him because I know what he does and I know what he's capable of.”
Thomas doesn’t feel like he needs to text his way onto the team, even if that approach has worked on Ryder Cup captains of the past.
“I mean, it's not like I'm going to write [Zach Johnson] a love letter or anything,” Thomas said. “I would like to think that my record is my best argument. I love the team events. I thrive in them. I just enjoy it. Playing with a partner could kind of ease me a little bit, relax me. I don't want to put him in this position. I hate even having to hope for a pick. This is the first time since I first qualified that I've had to rely on a captain's pick, and it's not fun, especially when you're trending the wrong way when other people are trending toward it. But I'm just hoping that I can finish this year out strong and my record speaks for itself.”
It’s dicey territory for a writer to try and analyze a professional golfer’s swing, or even his tactical approach. It feels a bit like a guy who draws stick figures with crayons trying to tell Monet how to paint water lilies, so I wade into this territory carefully and respectfully. But I wonder sometimes if Thomas might benefit from trying to emulate Colin Morikawa more and Tiger Woods a little less.
Yes, Thomas is an artist, and as he has shown, there is no shot shape he can’t picture in his mind, then attempt. He moves the ball with as much creativity as anyone in golf. (Woods and Bubba Watson might have an edge.) But there are times when he feels like Thomas needs a reliable miss, particularly on days when his timing and tempo aren’t perfect.
What if he showed up at the 3M next week and just hit fades?
That might seem like madness, but it’s worked for Morikawa, for Max Homa, and particularly for Scottie Scheffler. Why not experiment for a bit, at least until your tempo and timing return? Thomas’ best friend, Rickie Fowler, has reinvented himself by re-making his swing. What’s the risk in trying to find a stock miss? That creativity and artistry will re-emerge as his confidence does.
Thirty years ago, the American Ryder Cup team went to Europe and won 15-13 at the Belfry. They have been flummoxed trying to figure out how to win overseas ever since.
That’s also the same year — 1993 — Justin Thomas was born. We have been waiting three decades for someone to come along and help break the curse. Thomas, and his fist-pumping, beer-chugging, chest-thumping energy, is an essential part of the team culture. He doesn’t need to play five matches, but he needs to be part of the team, whether he makes the FedExCup playoffs or not. Since making his first international competition in 2017, he’s gone 16-5-3 in Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups. In 2018 when the United States got rolled by the Europeans at Le Golf National, Thomas was one of the only players who didn’t shrink in the moment going 4-1, including beating McIlroy in singles on Sunday.
Early in his career, Thomas received some mild criticism for saying he’d rather win a Ryder Cup than win a major. It was hard for the American golf establishment to wrap its head around that mentality. Yet this year may be the best chance to fulfill that promise. Yes, he was garbage in the majors and will be the first to concede as much. But the biggest prize, in Thomas’ mind, still remains.
Don’t you want someone like that on the first tee in Italy, staring down McIlroy and Rahm, with an obnoxious but somehow perfect smirk on his face?
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up
Email him at email@example.com