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2023 Ryder Cup picks: Justin Thomas fits best in crucial role as U.S. seeks to end drought on European soil

Justin Thomas is a lot of things: two-time major champion, one of the great PGA Tour winners in the modern era, multi-time Team USA participant at the Olympic Games, tremendous iron player, friend of Tiger Woods. Now, you can go ahead and add “most polarizing pick in recent Ryder Cup memory” to the list.

On Tuesday, Thomas was among Zach Johnson’s captain’s picks for the U.S. team along with playing partner Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa, Sam Burns and Rickie Fowler. Five of those picks were justifiable when analyzing the numbers, wins and general performances from the last year. 

One of them was not.

You could go down the list of players who deserved a spot on this team ahead of Thomas. Russell Henley, Tony Finau, Cameron Young, Keegan Bradley … and on and on it goes. Thomas ranks behind William Mouw and Carson Young (no relation to Cameron Young) in terms of strokes gained over the last three months. He missed out on the 70-man PGA Tour FedEx Cup Playoffs a month ago.

However, Johnson did something nobody has really done, maybe ever, in recent Ryder Cup history: He picked somebody he believed would help him construct the best overall team possible. It’s risky, it’s brazen, but for a team that has not won in Europe in 30 years, it’s the right call.

“He has, without question, been the heart and soul of Team USA,” said Johnson. “Our emotional leader, I would say, and I don’t think he would argue with that. He just leads by example. Overall a fantastic Ryder Cup record. His passion for the Ryder Cup is very evident. He would say it himself. He has said it himself.

“In my mind, he was born for this. You just don’t leave J.T. at home.”

Thomas is unique in this sense: If any of the other captain’s picks were playing this poorly, it would be almost impossible to justify picking them. However, the U.S. locker room lacked a soul as currently constructed, and Johnson selected one in Thomas. 

Go up and down the roster. Who’s rallying the troops on Saturday night when the U.S. trails by three and Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm are running downhill looking for the dagger? There’s not a player who can fill that role. Plenty of golfers on this team have experience. Many of them are major champions. But there is no lightning rod — someone who wants to be looked to when it turns bleak late.

On the surface this looks like the good ol’ boys club kept itself intact. That’s an understandable sentiment and one that has angered (like, truly angered) many golf fans online. But it willfully ignores the role J.T.’s role on the team. Taking a name or a talent for the sake of the name or the talent is very different than taking the guy who has a legitimate purpose in Rome, even if he only plays two or three matches. You can say they should take him as a vice captain, but when the chips are down, nobody who’s swinging a club is looking at a vice captain to encourage them.

“When you get down to it, the actual team, those 12 guys, the intangible part of our game and the intangible part of the Cup almost becomes tangible,” said Johnson. “Like, you actually see and feel all of what I just said, individual to individual, as a group. They’re going to pick them up. They’re going to encourage them. They’re literally going to put courage into them. It’s just the best.”

The U.S. has been doing the same thing in Europe for 30 years, rolling out the best collection of talent anywhere in the world and saying, You know what, I think THIS time it’s going to work.

“The Americans were amazingly strong on paper,” 2018 European vice captain (and 2023 European captain) Luke Donald said after Europe rolled the Americans in Paris in 2018. “But Ryder Cups are just different than individual championships. They are about team chemistry, team bonding and finding the right partnerships. And we obviously had a lot of help being at home on a course we’re very familiar with.”

Team chemistry, team bonding and finding the right partnerships. All of that is brought to the American table by Thomas. He and Spieth have combined to go 4-2 in team matches at the last two Ryder Cups. It’s doubtful that they’ll play together for more than two matches in Rome, but that will be an important pairing for the United States team. Its emotional core.

All of this is not to say that the U.S. could not have won this event had it picked Glover, Bradley, Finau or Henley. It absolutely could have. It is to say that Thomas gives you the best opportunity to curtail the losing. Because for all the hollering and gesticulating about Thomas and whether he deserved a spot on this team, one thing is certain …

On Sunday afternoon when Europe leads eight of the 12 matches, the path to victory seems inevitable and everyone in red, white and blue starts looking a little wild eyed at what’s transpiring, you’re going to need somebody (anybody) to turn the tide. Somebody to put a stake in the ground for everyone to cling to when Marco Simone starts to feel like quicksand. Somebody unafraid to take a rip at Rahm and put something red on the board for everyone else to look at. 

That’s a different thing altogether. It’s barely the same sport we’ve been watching the last several months and on which this team was determined. Johnson understands that. His team understands that. Brooks Koepka said on Tuesday, “It’s the most nervous I’ve ever been in a golf tournament.” Europe definitely understands that. And when that’s the case — and it will almost certainly be the case — your strokes gained doesn’t matter. What you did at Augusta doesn’t matter. Where you finished in the FedEx Cup standings certainly doesn’t matter. 

All that matters is whether you want to be in the arena. And they picked one of the few guys who truly does.

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