RYDER CUP '23: Justin Thomas, the American that gets the Europeans' attention

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FILE - Justin Thomas of the U.S. celebrates after winning the 8th hole during a singles match on the final day of the 42nd Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside Paris, France, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. Thomas has become the American that Europeans love to beat because of his emotion.(AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

Justin Thomas had the weakest credentials and the strongest case for being part of this American team in the Ryder Cup, without even having to make an argument.

U.S. captain Zach Johnson needed only a few words to say so much about Thomas and the Ryder Cup when he used one of his six picks on him for Marco Simone outside Rome.

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“You just don't leave JT at home,” Johnson said.

Never mind his 6-2-1 record in his two Ryder Cup appearances, which includes a singles win in the leadoff match against Rory McIlroy on the road. Combine that with his three Presidents Cup appearances, and Thomas sports a 16-5-3 record.

It's not even his partnership with longtime friend Jordan Spieth. They have won eight of their 10 matches in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.

Who's the one American who can get under Europe's skin?

“Justin,” said Spieth, not even waiting to hear the full question. Spieth looked straight ahead, waiting to see if there was anything else. And then he added, "Just ask the Europeans.”

“That's easy,” Matt Fitzpatrick of England said. “Don't even need to answer that one. Come on. Justin Thomas. Not in a nasty way. I love JT. He's just such a good player."

In his pro debut for Team USA in the 2017 Presidents Cup, Thomas was cupping his hand to his ear and egging on the pro-American gallery at Liberty National even during a lopsided win. At the last Ryder Cup, even when he was sitting out a match, Thomas was the center of attention. He and Daniel Berger chugged a can of beer someone in the gallery tossed them as they were on the first tee waiting to cheer on their teammates.

McIlroy, on the losing end to Thomas twice in the 2018 Ryder Cup, was trying to think if Europe had anyone who could replace Ian Poulter — a player who took so much pride in competing, who carried himself with such cockiness that he was the one player to whom Americans hated losing.

And then he was asked if the Americans had a player like that.

“JT, absolutely," McIlroy said. “It's a no-brainer. It's an ab-so-lute no-brainer. I love JT. He's one of my closest friends on the tour. The week of the Ryder Cup. I hate him.”

Any questions about Thomas being part of this Ryder Cup team stem from his performance over the last year. A bad season looked even worse because of the standard he set.

Thomas began his PGA Tour career with 15 victories in eight seasons, two of them majors at the PGA Championship, one of them the last World Golf Championship held at venerable Firestone. He won the FedEx Cup at age 24 in 2017 when he was PGA Tour player of the year.

But he fell into a slump, first with his putter and then through the rest of his game. His numbers were down across key categories, particularly his iron play and scrambling. Most telling, beyond going winless for the first time since his rookie season, were the majors.

He missed the cut in three of them. He nearly missed them all except for the 18th hole at Oak Hill when he took two shots to get out of a bunker and made a 7-foot putt for bogey to make the cut on the number at the PGA Championship.

It's been that kind of year.

“There were some things that I was trying to change that I ended up basically overdoing or overexaggerating too early, and it just got me in some tough spots,” Thomas said.

And so he missed the FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time, finishing 71st, raising questions whether he should be picked for the Ryder Cup team. Thomas finished 15th in the standings. There have been other picks ranked much lower — Rickie Fowler was No. 20 when he was picked for this first Ryder Cup in 2010, the first U.S. pick to have never won on the PGA Tour.

Pressure figures to be greater than ever, though Thomas doesn't see it that way.

“I feel way more one of 12 after the practice session,” he said upon returning from Italy for the U.S. scouting trip. “The pressure I'm feeling is not because of the captain's pick. It's because of Ryder Cup pressure.”

Thomas loves it, and his record backs that up — at least for now. Passion and emotion stand out, but only if there is a winning record to go along with it. That's what Poulter and Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie had for Europe. That's what Patrick Reed had for two Ryder Cup appearances for the Americans.

“JT has got an edge to him. That's a good thing in the Ryder Cup,” former U.S. captain Curtis Strange said.

Thomas finished fifth at the Fortinet Championship last week, his first competition in six weeks because he didn't reach the postseason. He does not sound nearly concerned as everyone else about the state of his game, knowing the ultimate judgment are his results in Rome.

As for being the one player that seems to irritate the opponent?

“I'll take that as a compliment,” he said. "It's like what Rory said, in a sense. It's a big difference the week of the Ryder Cup. I'm going to hate every single one of them. I still respect their golf game. I respect them. I haven't experienced anything where it got to a personal level. The celebrating, the gamesmanship, it is what it is.

“I want to win really bad and I don't like them. It's something where I show it a little more.”

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