Does the US captain reckon Justin Thomas is his Ian Poulter?
As Zach Johnson named his six wild cards Tuesday for next month’s Ryder Cup in Rome and pronounced statements such as “JT is the heart and soul of Team USA” and “he has the passion and was born for this” it was hard not to go back to the Englishman they called ‘The Postman’.
Unlike Thomas, Poulter does not have two majors in his locker. And, of course, Poulter was never world No. 1. But Johnson, his assistants and his six automatic qualifiers showed a clear leap of faith in choosing Thomas.
It really didn’t sound too unlike the biennial tradition when Poulter would command a wildcard regardless of his place on the points lists.
That being said, Thomas has only played in two Ryder Cups, and regardless of his performance in the Presidents Cup – so Ryder Cup-lite, it’s 0 percent – he’ll have to go some way to emulate Poulter.
The polite 30-year-old is not doing well in the impression stake. His reaction when exposed by Johnson was anything but reminiscent of Poulter, the firebrand who earned his “Postman” nickname at the 2010 match by announcing before his singles against Matt Kuchar (which he won 5&4): “I will deliver.” Thomas’ behavior was rather a humble telegram.
“I’m very, very lucky to be here,” he said. “I’ve had many sleepless nights thinking about what could happen … You can want something too bad.”
“Justin is out of shape but he has the mentality”
He got it, and perhaps this is a reflection of how badly the Americans want to win on European soil for the first time in 30 years – one of the truly incredible statistics in big-time sports. In the build-up to Johnson’s selection, Paul McGinley, the learned winning captain in 2014, predicted that Thomas was a shoo-in and that Johnson would go “all European” in completing his dozen.
“Yes, he’s out of shape but he’s got the mentality,” said McGinley, now a Sky Sports analyst. “I mean, how many times have we picked Poulter as a wildcard over the years where he didn’t qualify by right? He always delivered because he had that mentality and fit easily into the team. Although a guy might not have been massive in form, the personality was what was important to us. That affected it.”
But this is America – with all its strength in depth – and not Europe, which frankly has never been overloaded with options. Thomas has fallen outside the top 25, with five missed cuts in his last eight starts. He has one cut in the majors this year and just one top 10 in the last five months.
Seeing camaraderie win out over Cameron Young and kinship over Keegan Bradley is an indication that Johnson and the familiar group of assistants are convinced that the buddy system, effectively brought in after the frosty scenes of the 2014 game under Tom Watson, is is needed. to lower the blue and gold in the Italian capital.
“JT has been without a doubt the heart and soul of the American Ryder Cup teams, our emotional leader,” Johnson said, speaking of a golfer who has played six days in the Ryder Cup. “Overall, he has a fantastic Ryder Cup record. His passion for the Ryder Cup is very evident. In my mind, he was born for this. You just don’t leave JT at home.”
It might be a gamble, but once you’ve dropped six away, the chips barely sizzle as they fly through the air. The task force set up after the Gleneagles fiasco – when Phil Mickelson, ever the politician, turned on captain Watson in the post-match press conference, all but accusing him of not listening to the players – decided this would be less akin to a sports set -up and more a municipality. Strictness equals correctness.
Johnson acknowledged that last week he spoke with the six automatic qualifiers — Scottie Scheffler, Wyndham Clark, Brian Harman, Patrick Cantlay, Max Homa and Xander Schauffele — as well as shoo-ins Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler and asked who they would have allowed in. their frat house.
Of course they said Thomas, and just as inevitably Scheffler, as world No. 1, would have his hombre Sam Burns by his side, and no one can say his inclusion isn’t justified by his status as WGC Matchplay champion. Yet they also said Brooks Koepka because the friends knew it would make no sense to ignore a LIV Golf rebel who had finished second in the Masters and won the USPGA. “These guys wanted him — I wanted him,” Johnson said. “A very natural fit.”
But Johnson admitted he had not called other LIV players to break the bad news – “I only called the ones who were about 23rd on the list” – and dodged the question that if form didn’t matter to Thomas, why did Dustin Johnson not deserve a call after winning five points out of five at Ryder Cup 2021?
However, the American captain has Koepka and cannot possibly be accused of bias. If only.
Social media was in an uproar that Thomas was favored ahead of Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Talor Gooch and even Patrick Reed. The captain disregarded the breakout league and focused on the unit ahead of him on the PGA Tour, which was only further secured by Fowler’s comeback.
Bradley is going to hurt the most as he is 37 and staked his two titles this year, guaranteeing a return to the arena he loves so much after a nine-year absence. But Young was probably the biggest surprise.
You have to feel for the world No. 17 with two top-threes and two other top-eights in the last seven majors. Not long ago, good old Freddie Couples, another of Johnson’s assistants at the meeting at the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, stated live on the radio that Young would play in the Italian capital. Alas, the circle closed and Young was on the outside. Not that it would ever be admitted.
“All my phone calls were difficult,” Johnson said when asked about Young’s omission. “It kept me up at night having to make those calls, especially Cam, but he was a gent. I know what was said [by Couples]but it was a while ago, and all said in jest.”