It is tough to state that an individual golfer can make or break the 2023 Ryder Cup. The competition is littered with stars of today, stars of tomorrow and a handful of unknowns. But if there is one domino that may tip the balance more than others, that domino is Justin Thomas.
The American stalwart, the controversial captain's pick, the two-time PGA Championship winner, the man who missed the FedEx Cup Playoffs -- choose how you wish to define him. No matter, Thomas is wearing the red, white and blue at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, and he's expected to be a crucial driver in the United States' plan to break a 30-year road losing streak.
This didn't always look to be the case. After falling short of qualifying for the FedEx Cup Playoffs and enduring the worst season of his career, Thomas' spot on the team was in flux -- at least as far as the public was concerned. Some of his peers that went on runs and won tournaments were thought to have earned roles on the American side, but none of that mattered once captain Zach Johnson announced the 30-year-old's name last month.
And if you believe Thomas, that vote of confidence from Johnson may have played a role in a newfound belief in his game entering this crucial international event.
"I clearly am in a lot better place than I was in certain times in the summer," Thomas said this week. "But I mean, it's golf … you just never know. I had plenty of signs of great golf this summer as well. It was just I had quite a few less of them and I had more signs of the other. But more than anything, I'm just in a good head space, and that's -- for me, that's what's most important.
"I've won golf tournaments without my best stuff, and I take a lot of pride in that, and I have taken a lot of pride in that in the past. I did not feel like I could win golf tournaments this past year with the state that I was in mentally. Yeah, a lot of that has to do with how I was playing, and one does generally feed off of the other, but I just I feel like I'm in a lot better place. ... Napa is great example. If I'm maybe not [playing] extremely sharp ... I just I feel like I can keep building and keep building and keep building like I did there for four, five, six years and just try to be better."
Thomas was better in Napa. He put together his best finish since the Phoenix Open in February and his fourth-best strokes gained numbers of the year. The driver was wayward at times, but it's always like that with the two-time major champion. His iron play looked vintage, the short game ever steady, and maybe most surprising, the putter showed signs of life. The statistics were great and gave him a boost of confidence.
The quality outing was important, but nothing matters more in golf than the space between the ears, and Thomas appeared genuinely relieved in his press conference Tuesday. You could see the mental anguish of this past season washed from his mind. Some may project this relief coming from his feet being on Italian soil or playing better a couple weeks ago. Perhaps that's true, but it looked much like Thomas was a man who hit the bottom and knows there is now only one direction to go.
"I would say the U.S. Open was a really, really low place for me," said Thomas. "I was playing arguably the best golf I've played in years going into there and I shot a thousand and almost finished last. So, that's a pretty bad feeling to be perfectly honest. But then I played well the next week, so it just was weird. I was putting so much emphasis and so much pressure on trying to play well to make the Ryder Cup, as opposed to trying to make the Playoffs, which is a wild concept, but unfortunately just the way my mind was working.
"I don't know what it was. I just, for some reason, that next week after the Wyndham, when those the guys were in Memphis, I was off. I was just kind of like, Alright, I've accepted whatever was going to happen was going to happen. I wasn't losing sleep at night thinking, Oh, if I had done this differently ... Just glad it worked out the way it did for me to be here."
The U.S. will be in a great position Sunday if Thomas' ascension continues this week in Rome. A collector of a 6-2-1 Ryder Cup record across his two appearances, the American spark plug is vital to complete the journey to the mountaintop. Sure, there will be bumps along the way -- wins, losses and ties -- but if Thomas is in as good a space mentally as he claims, there is no one else this team would want behind the wheel.