The Curious Ryder Cup Case of Justin Thomas

A look at whether or not Justin Thomas should be on the 2023 American Ryder Cup team


If you somehow aren’t aware, Justin Thomas is in a bit of a slump. Since the beginning of 2023, he’s dropped from 8th to 24th in the Official World Golf Rankings. With two weeks left in the regular season, JT is currently 77th in the FedEx Cup standings. That means if the playoffs started today he wouldn’t make it, as the format now features only the top 70 players. He’s at the 3M Open this week chasing a good result to improve that standing. It’s an inconceivable tumble for a player who, when things are right, is among the top five or so players in the sport. In addition to the FedEx Cup Playoffs, an appearance on the U.S. Ryder Cup Team is in doubt. He sits just 14th on the American points list; the top six players after the BMW Championship make the team automatically. If he misses the playoffs he’ll slide even further down the standings.

Over the past few years, Thomas has become one of the leaders of the American team. His play has been brilliant, yes, but his antics have frustrated the Europeans in beneficial ways. Due to his precarious position in both the FedEx Cup standings and the Ryder Cup points list, Thomas is making an appearance at this week’s 3M Open as well as next week’s Wyndham Championship. With solid play, Thomas could move into the top 70, make the playoffs, and either make a run up the points list or put himself in a better spot for a captain’s pick by demonstrating good form.

Going back to May of 2022, had anyone suggested that Justin Thomas would miss out on the Ryder Cup due to poor form they would have been laughed out of the room. He had just won the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, and was seemingly on a trajectory to consistent major contention. But over 24 full-field events since the PGA win, Thomas has notched just four top-10 finishes. He’s dropped to 43rd in the Strokes Gained: Total stat this season, down from 6th in 2021-2022. Thomas has fallen from an elite player to an above-average player. The main culprits: a dip in his driver and iron play, which were once dominant tools in his bag.

This stumble puts captain Zach Johnson in a tough spot. Statistically, Thomas is not playing well enough to be a Ryder Cup player. But he’s one of the biggest names in the player pool, and is well-liked by the other American stars. If Thomas continues to play mediocre golf and Johnson picks him anyway, it will be viewed as a political move as opposed to merit-based. It would be the type of selection that regularly occurred in past editions, the kind that rewards being in the right clique as opposed to how a player is actually performing. It could lead to an uproar among players who have put together better resumes in total over the past two years.

Let’s be honest: making a Ryder Cup team is a massive achievement for most players. It signifies excellence across a span of multiple years, equating to making an all-star game in other sports. When we sit back and examine the careers of the U.S. and European stars of yesteryear, Ryder Cups are a benchmark. Phil Mickelson made every Ryder Cup team from 1995-2018, an astounding achievement. Likewise, I am sure Justin Thomas would love to look back on his career having played 7 or 8 consecutive Ryder Cups. Right now, he’s at two. That’s the same number as Keegan Bradley (2012, 2014), with whom Thomas is competing for one of the final spots this year. If Bradley makes the 2023 team, it would be an incredible achievement, highlighting the impressive longevity of his career.

On top of career legacy, Ryder Cup selections are financially lucrative for players. Making the Ryder Cup team often leads to incentive boosts in current sponsor contracts, as well as new sponsor interest and a better shot at the PGA Tour’s new PIP program, which doles out big money to players who generate the most interest and coverage for the sport. Between sponsor bonuses and the PIP implications, a spot on the team could mean a seven-figure sum for Justin Thomas. Of course, it’s also worth a lot of money to the fringe Ryder Cup players Thomas is battling with. Guys like Cameron Young, Sam Burns, and others would jump to a different level of visibility with a spot on the Ryder Cup Team. While the Ryder Cup doesn’t pay players, there is still a huge financial incentive for players to make the team and play the event. It also sets up the potential for grievances should Thomas stumble down the stretch and still make the squad.

Still, Thomas has a solid case. If he plays well at the 3M and the Wyndham, makes the postseason, and carries good form over to the playoff events, he’ll probably make the team. But if he falters, can’t move from his current position of 77th in the FedEx Cup, and misses the playoffs, that will create a major headache for Zach Johnson.

Every organization with a monetary interest in the Ryder Cup (the PGA, DP World Tour, TV partners, sponsors, etc), wants a superstar like Justin Thomas on the team. He is one of the few players in golf with the potential to raise interest in an event among a more casual audience. Johnson has to weigh that external pressure with his duty to put together the best possible American team as they look to win a Ryder Cup on European soil for the first time in 30 years. If JT’s poor play continues, it’s hard to make the argument that he gives you the best chance to win. Not to mention the potential for conflict and controversy that kind of pick would likely create among both observers and players who were passed over for a legacy selection. The U.S. team identity has shifted in recent years, moving away from preferential treatment and towards performance-based picks. Without a substantial improvement in his play, picking Thomas would be a step back to the good ol’ boys mentality of prior decades.

Complicating the political strain that Zach Johnson faces: it was announced this week that Thomas would play in Johnson’s charity outing in Cedar Rapids, which JT has never done before. If Thomas were to make the team without improving his play in the next two weeks, that appearance would surely face scrutiny from both players and media.

Another layer is the aforementioned change to the FedEx Cup format. This is the first year that the PGA Tour has used the top-70 for playoff qualification, down from 125. In prior years, JT’s chances of advancing wouldn’t be in question, and he’d have a real shot at playing multiple playoff events with a good week or two. Going to the top-70 format was a tremendous tweak, and has played out wonderfully in the first year. If he’d already locked up a playoff berth, Thomas most likely wouldn’t have played the 3M. But now fans in Minnesota get to see one of the most famous players in the sport playing with real stakes. The Thomas situation makes for a compelling narrative this week, one the event likely wouldn’t have had otherwise. Making the postseason harder to reach has elevated the usually-sleepy end of summer schedule. That’s a win for both the events and for fans. As for me, I hope he plays well. The Ryder Cup is more interesting with Justin Thomas playing than it would be with him as an assistant captain.

This piece originally appeared in The Fried Egg newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.