Ryder Cup 2023: It seems like Justin Thomas has his swagger back

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ROME—Justin Thomas said he isn’t keeping receipts, which doesn’t seem like something a confident Justin Thomas would say. Thomas’ appeal and arguably part of his success, especially at the Ryder Cup, is treating slights both real and perceived with mild irritation that anyone could stop him from getting to where he wants to go. Justin Thomas isn’t keeping receipts? Like hell he’s not.

Which is why it was surprising to hear the 30-year-old hasn’t paid attention to the criticism around his captain’s pick selection for this Ryder Cup. “I don’t feel like there is any good that can come from that,” Thomas said Tuesday afternoon at Marco Simone. “After I was picked from the team, doesn’t matter what it is … everybody’s got an opinion and theirs is right and everybody else’s is wrong, at least that’s what generally seems to be. So for that exact reason, I stayed away from social media and stayed away from stuff online because I knew nothing good was going to come from it.”

It’s a mature answer. Probably the healthiest response, too. The caveat, however, is for the United States to pull off something that it hasn’t done in 30 years, its fate will likely rest on the Thomas of now remembering how to be the Thomas of old.

Because the Thomas of 2023 was a Justin Thomas we had not seen. Statistically the two-time major winner didn’t have a down year, ranked 25th in strokes gained and 17th in SG/tee-to-green. The results said otherwise. He missed the cut at three of four majors and made the cut at the PGA Championship on the number. Despite a charge at the Wyndham Championship Thomas missed the FedEx Cup Playoffs after finishing no worse than seventh in the FEC standings the previous seven years. A fifth-place finish in this month’s Fortinet Championship was just his second top 10 since the middle of March. Thomas’ rough stretch was jarring, for he is both a throwback, adhering to the tenets of shotmaking and vision and around-the-green dexterity, while conforming to the modern game’s demands of power and aggression. Jim “Bones” Mackay said he came out of retirement to take Thomas’ bag because Thomas has “all the shots,” which is saying something given Bones spent decades with Phil Mickelson. To see Thomas struggle was a reminder that no one is impervious to the mercurial cadences of professional golf.

But despite this season’s slump the man who couldn’t crack the PGA Tour’s top 70 is among the 12 representing the red, white and blue in Rome. And with reason: Thomas has amassed 17½ points for the Americans across two Ryder Cups and three Presidents Cups, a total that has him on a trajectory to be the best American player in team history. He’s also—and we say this as a compliment—an agitator, the rare bird capable of enraging opponents and opposing crowds and his performance not suffering because of it. When Zach Johnson announced his captain’s picks he called Thomas the club’s “heart and soul,” and you don’t leave your heart and soul at home.

Thing is, the Ryder Cup is not the place to look for your game. Thomas played well in Napa and pretty good at the Wyndham, but the summer still hangs heavy. Captain’s picks are always scrutinized, but detractors perceived Thomas’ inclusion as a form of favoritism. That carries a certain weight and responsibility, to say nothing of the importance placed on him and Jordan Spieth to perform as one of the Americans’ superduos. No one has more on the line this week than JT, whether Thomas admits it or not.

He did concede, however, that he’s in a “better headspace,” both about his game and with himself.

“I did not feel like I could win golf tournaments this past year with the state that I was in mentally,” Thomas said. “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 to where — I mean, Napa is great example, where I can just kind of get it around, if I’m maybe not extremely sharp to where 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.”

It’s easier said than done. Thomas has been working with a mental coach since January, trying to find peace while not extinguishing his internal flame. He hasn’t sussed it all out, but he’s confident he’ll find the right path as long as he keeps looking.

“I just feel like that we’ve found a place that I’m able to just kind of look at things a little bit differently as they are happening and maybe not put as much emphasis on negative things that happened, or if bad things do happen, trying to turn them into a positive kind of thing.

“And also, like I said earlier, playing better does help with that.”

Playing better begets conviction, and for the longest time Thomas was a fusion of swagger and giddiness. For most of the year, he’s looked like a player who couldn’t feign confidence because he wasn’t confident he could back it up. And though all players go through cold stretches—Spieth and fellow Ryder Cupper Rickie Fowler are examples of that—there’s always the worry the longer you’re in the cold the farther away you are from the fire. Self-assurance can’t be spoken into existence; there is no fake-it-until-you-make-it in golf. It comes with work and production and time.

But everyone needs the occasional pick-me up, and Thomas received his from Johnson and his teammates.

“The only thing that mattered to me was that Zach and the vice captains and the, I guess, at that time, other six guys on the team wanted me on the team,” Thomas said. “Zach and I had had discussions whenever it was before the picks, and that was kind of my—what I told him, is I’m like, look, obviously, of course, I want to be on the team, yeah. I think that I can compete and that I can go out there and I can do great for the team.

“But at the end of the day, if the six guys in that room don’t think that I’m what’s best for the team, then I don’t deserve to go. That’s been my thought the whole time, and I’m very glad that they did and do have faith in me. And now that I’m here, all of us hold the same weight as the other one. We are all one, and it’s just our job to go out there and try to win points.”

Thomas doesn’t need to run off criticism because he is fueled by something far more sustaining, and that is the belief that for the Americans to break their three-decade curse they will need him by their side.

It should be noted that later in the press conference Thomas felt Australian fans were more vocal at the 2019 Presidents Cup than those in Paris at the 2018 Ryder Cup. Those seem like fighting words, and we suppose they were. They were also not said in jest. It is the truth only a confident man can deliver.

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