U.S. captain Zach Johnson wasn't about to go to Rome for the Ryder Cup without Justin Thomas. And he made it sound as though Brooks Koepka was just as easy a decision.
They were among six captain's picks announced Tuesday to fill out a 12-man American team that will try to end three decades of losing on European soil, all while setting up Johnson for the usual dose of second-guessing if it all goes wrong.
The Ryder Cup is Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 at Marco Simone outside Rome. Europe's team will not be determined until after this week.
Thomas is regarded by players on both sides as the emotional spark for the U.S. team in the Ryder Cup, beyond his 6-2-1 record in two previous appearances. But he has gone 15 months without winning, and he played so poorly this year that he didn't even finish among the top 70 who reached the FedEx Cup postseason.
“He has without question been the heart and soul of Team USA,” Johnson said. “In my mind, he was born for this. You just don't leave JT at home.”
Thomas said he had trouble sleeping in the days leading up to the phone call, and then he couldn't sleep after he was picked because of his excitement.
“I’m very, very fortunate to be here,” Thomas said.
Koepka was knocked out of the six automatic qualifiers in the final week. No one would have thought twice about his selection as the PGA Championship winner and a Masters runner-up, except that he's part of Saudi-backed LIV Golf and its 54-hole events and 48-man fields.
Turns out that wasn't an issue. “It was a pretty easy pick,” Johnson said.
“He's built in my mind for the biggest of stages, and there's no bigger stage than the Ryder Cup,” Johnson said from the PGA of America's new headquarters in Frisco, Texas.
The other four picks were Jordan Spieth and Collin Morikawa, both part of the U.S. rout over Europe in 2021 at Whistling Straits, along with Rickie Fowler and Sam Burns, the only Ryder Cup rookie among the six picks.
The six qualifiers were Scottie Scheffler, U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark, British Open champion Brian Harman, Patrick Cantlay, Max Homa and Xander Schauffele.
Left off the team were Cameron Young, who has finished in the top 10 in four of the last seven majors and was No. 9 in the Ryder Cup standings; Keegan Bradley (No. 11), a two-time winner this season who has played in two Ryder Cups; and Lucas Glover, one of the hottest players in golf with two victories over the last four weeks.
That led to speculation over how much the buddy system played a role.
Spieth and Thomas have been best friends since they were 14 and have compiled a strong partnership in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup — 8-2-0, most notable a 3-1 mark before a hostile crowd in France in 2018.
Burns is best friends with Scheffler and finished 12th in the Ryder Cup standings, his only win this year in the Dell Match Play over Young. He missed the cut in two of the four majors. He and Scheffler were 0-2-1 as partners in the Presidents Cup last year.
Fowler pulled himself out of a deep slump by winning the Rocket Mortgage Classic. One of the most likeable players in golf, he is close friends with Spieth, Thomas and practically everybody else. He was 13th in the Ryder Cup standings, and while this will be his fifth Ryder Cup team, it was his third time relying on a captain's pick. His Ryder Cup record is 3-7-5.
Fowler didn't win his first match until his third Ryder Cup appearance.
Johnson said the six automatic qualifiers had some ownership in the team and contributed to the discussion on the six picks, the last meeting a week ago in Atlanta during the Tour Championship. He made it sound as though the choices had been set.
“I think the elements in which I've mentioned before — team room, camaraderie, guys getting along, wanting to be with each other, course fit, experience — all of those factors and what the top six are leaning on, those factors weighed heavier than I would say the last two weeks of competition,” Johnson said.
The American team will have four Ryder Cup rookies — Clark, Harman, Homa and Burns — and four players who have played a Ryder Cup overseas. Fowler has played in Wales, Scotland and France, and his record in those away matches is 1-6-5.
Johnson said he called most Americans on the Ryder Cup points list who didn't make the team down to the low 20s. That did not include Dustin Johnson, who went 5-0 at Whistling Straits, or other LIV players like Bryson DeChambeau.