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Golf Monthly
Golf Monthly
Paul Higham

'You Don't Leave JT At Home' - Why Johnson Was Right To Pick Out Of Sorts Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas holds his hand up to his ear at the 2021 Ryder Cup

Zach Johnson says "you just don't leave JT at home" when explaining his decision to make him one of his Ryder Cup wildcards, as he banks on Thomas' passion and previous record making him America's Ian Poulter.

It's a selection gamble that has attracted plenty of attention for a number of reasons but the main one being that Thomas has been mired in a slump in form this season.

Many point to the likes of Keegan Bradley, Lucas Glover or even Bryson DeChambeau being more "deserving" of a place in the team on current form.

Johnson is the captain though, his Ryder Cup legacy will depend on the 12 men who'll be out on the course at Marco Simone in Rome next month, and he's sticking by a player he knows will rise to the occasion.

It's a player who on the one hand won his second Major just 15 months ago, but on the other missed the cut in three of four Majors this season and endured two of his worst rounds.

Given Thomas' Ryder Cup record though, and digging a little deeper into previous selections, should we really be that surprised?

Why did Johnson pick Thomas?

(Image credit: Getty Images)

First and foremost is Thomas' Ryder Cup record of 6-2-1 from two appearances that put him in the driving seat for a pick - but also the manner of his displays in team formats.

"He has without question been the heart and soul of Team USA, Ryder Cups, our emotional leader I would say," Johnson said of Thomas.

"He just leads by example. His passion for the Ryder Cup is very evident. In my mind, he was born for this, and there is - you just don’t leave JT at home."

The Ryder Cup is like nothing else, certainly not like a regular strokeplay event, and having that experience, especially of an away Ryder Cup, can be worth so much more than just basic form coming in.

"I don't think you can really put into words, and us that have experienced it, especially over there, can understand," Thomas said of the Ryder Cup atmosphere in Europe.

"It's all the nerves that we are playing for. It's why we play professional golf is to be in these kind of atmospheres. It doesn't matter how many Cups we've played in, whether it's our first one or our fifth one or our third one.

"We're all going to be nervous, but it's a great opportunity, and I think all of us are very excited, and I know the rookies are, as well."

Nothing new in picking experience over form

Thomas finished 15th in the Team USA Ryder Cup standings, and as mentioned won a Major just last year, so should we really be so surprised by his selection?

The USA have long since abandoned the policy of just picking "the best 12" and trying to mould those into a cohesive team unit - it just wasn't working - so offering the captain more flexibility in picks was seen as the key.

Even last time out at Whistling Straits, Scottie Scheffler was selected ahead of 'Captain America' Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson despite finishing just behind them in qualifying. And look what Scheffler's done since!

Davis Love III made some big calls when USA won the 2016 Ryder Cup (Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2018 Tony Finau finished 15th but got the nod ahead of Xander Schauffele, Matt Kuchar and Kevin Kisner and won two out of three despite America's huge loss.

Davis Love III was a big believer in the team dynamics and twice snubbed the 'next man in form' on the qualifying list after the automatic spots, leaving out Hunter Mahan for a 15th-placed Dustin Johnson in 2012 then going even further in 2016 by ditching Bubba Watson in favour of Ryan Moore who finished 20th! 

Even Tom Watson ignored so-called form in 2014 when he picked Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson from 13th and 15th place respectively and plumped for Mahan who ended up 25th.

These players had mixed results, but the history is there for looking outside of the qualifying spots - so Thomas making it in should not be such a big deal.

Captain's picks all about the team 

As Johnson indicated in his press conference, and as those who've been in and around team event selections before will tell you, wildcard picks are aimed at completing the team.

The captain's picks are not just picking the next best players, but finding players who can form solid partnerships, bring in experience and even who have a game suited to the Ryder Cup course - something qualifying points don't take into account. 

"As much as you want to bring good golf yourself to the table, I think a part of it is bringing the best out of your partner," Thomas said of playing a Ryder Cup.

"It's hard to get ahead of yourself or think about anything behind you because it's not a stroke-play event where you're looking at leaderboards or thinking about holes you're going to birdie. 

"The only thing you're worried about is just beating the person or team that you're playing against, and that's a challenge that I've enjoyed."

Critics of the Thomas pick do have a point in terms of sheer form, but we have to get over this notion that just playing well out on tour means you "deserve" a Ryder Cup place.

Much like this 'Boys Club' criticism baffles me slightly, when Europe's main strength when winning nine of the last 13 and being unbeaten on home soil in 30 years has been in passion and team spirit triumphing over superior individual players.

And as much as someone like Lucas Glover's late season form has been brilliant, would European players really fear playing him rather than Thomas? The answer is pretty simply no.

So Johnson has made his pick, he's the captain and he's put his legacy on Thomas being able to shake off his malaise and reigniting that spark just as Ian Poulter did time after time for Europe - and he only qualified twice.

It's now up to Thomas to handle that extra pressure and deliver like Europe's postman did time after time.

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