The Ryder Cup is a jingoistic, chaotic mess of a sporting event, the closest golf ever comes to the delirium of college football. What makes the Ryder Cup so much fun, though, is that every element of the affair is so un-golf-like. It’s as if the entire sport decided to spend a little time cosplaying as another, wilder sport.
The captain’s picks fit right into this dynamic. For one day, golf borrows a page from the NFL, turning a draft into an event. Much like the NFL draft, everyone has a loud opinion on the selections; unlike the NFL draft, we’ll know definitively whether the picks were right or wrong in less than five weeks.
American captain Zach Johnson’s six picks run the gamut from obvious (Collin Morikawa, Jordan Spieth) to the defensible (Sam Burns, Rickie Fowler) to the controversial but obvious (Brooks Koepka) to, well … Justin Thomas.
The selection of Thomas over other, more statistically impressive players — most notably Keegan Bradley — is the first referendum on Johnson’s run as captain. The decision boils down to a simple question: Do you pick the best player or the best teammate?
There’s no doubt that Thomas is a force in the locker room, a motivational whirlwind who has no problem leading the team. He’s 6-2-1 in his two Ryder Cup appearances, including a 4-1 record in Paris, where he faced down Rory McIlroy in singles and was one of the few Americans to show up during that blowout loss. He's 16-5-3 in international match play, including the Presidents Cup, and that's a pretty decent record.
"Obviously, form is a part of our decision-making process. There are a number of elements in that process, and form is one of them," Johnson said of Thomas' selection. "But so is fit for the golf course, fit for the team room, experience, and in my mind, when you are talking about [Thomas] specifically, he has passion and full confidence in [the Ryder Cup]. He is where he belongs."
On the other hand, Thomas has struggled significantly over the past few months. He wasn’t able to achieve a top-70 ranking on the season in order to make the playoffs. He has admitted that his game isn’t anywhere close to where it needs to be.
Bradley, on the other hand, surged late in the season, even getting within sight of eventual winner Viktor Hovland at last weekend’s Tour Championship. Bradley hasn’t played in a Ryder Cup since 2014, but he has rehabilitated his career in the past year. Notably, however, Bradley, Cam Young, Tony Finau and Lucas Glover, among others, aren’t members of the Fowler-Spieth-Thomas clique. Johnson wasn’t calling those players “one of my boys,” the way he did Fowler.
“I’ve always been an outsider in the sport, but I have tried to get closer to the guys I thought would be on the team," Bradley said after the decision was announced. "I feel like moving forward I’m going to have to automatically qualify for the Ryder Cup." Bradley added that he was "super bummed," and it's not hard to see why.
The flip side of that equation is this: The United States got waxed throughout the 2010s by a European group that bonded as a team. The Americans, on the other hand, were a highly lauded crew of lone wolves (see: Tiger Woods) who never meshed as a unit. The U.S. squad that waxed Europe 19-9 in 2021 did so with a sense of team and community unlike any in recent memory.
Johnson is trying to win the U.S.'s first Ryder Cup on European soil in 30 years. To do so, he'll have to triumph over a European squad that includes McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Hovland, a much more fearsome crew than it appeared two years ago. Talent will help, but talent that has thrived in big moments will be necessary, too. Johnson is gambling that Thomas will be able to help him on that front, and judgment will come in just a few weeks.