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Thomas, Koepka among six U.S. Ryder Cup captain’s picks

Johnson: Koepka is a 'natural fit' for Ryder Cup
Zach Johnson speaks on Brooks Kopeka and if his involvement in LIV Golf played any factor in his captain's pick.

Justin Thomas’ worst season on the PGA Tour didn’t cost him a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Captain Zach Johnson on Tuesday made Thomas one of his six wildcard selections to round out the American team, opting for Thomas’ sparkling match-play record over his current form as the Americans look to win on foreign soil for the first time since 1993.

“He has, without question, been the heart and soul of Team USA,” Johnson said. “Our emotional leader. He leads by example. His passion for the Ryder Cup is very evident. In my mind, he was born for this, and you just don’t leave JT at home.”

Earlier this month, Thomas narrowly missed qualifying for the FedExCup playoffs for the first time in his career, when he earned just three top-10s in 20 starts, missed the cut in three of the four majors and failed to win for the first time since his rookie season. Prior to this year, the 15-time Tour winner had just once finished worse than 12th in the season-long standings.

“I did put a lot on pressure on myself to make this team because it means so much to me,” Thomas said. “But it was a valuable learning experience for me. I’ll use it going forward. You can want something too badly, and there’s times this season I did. I’m very, very fortunate to be here.”

Johnson overlooked Thomas’ slump to tab the fiery player who has been the heartbeat of the U.S. teams over the past six years while amassing a 16-5-3 record in team competition – easily the best of any current American. Faced with the possibility of having more than seven weeks off before the Ryder Cup, which begins Sept. 29, Thomas recently added next week’s Fortinet Championship to his schedule.

Even with his struggles this season, Thomas’ inclusion to the U.S. side wasn’t much of a surprise considering his record in the format, ready-made partnership with Jordan Spieth and leadership role in the team room. Neither was the addition of four of the other captain’s picks: Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler and Collin Morikawa.

Koepka, the only LIV player selected, finished seventh in the U.S. standings despite only being eligible to earn points in the major championships. After a frustrating 2022 that was derailed by injuries, Koepka won the PGA for his fifth career major title, tied for second at the Masters (where he held the 54-hole lead) and also placed inside the top 20 in the U.S. Open.

“The way I see it, he basically earned his way onto the team,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy pick. Brooks is great in the team room, great inside the ropes. These guys wanted him. I wanted him. A very natural fit.”

Though he has finished 38th or worse in his last three worldwide starts, Koepka will have a 54-hole LIV tuneup event at Rich Harvest Farms the week preceding the matches. LIV’s limited schedule also won’t preclude Koepka from attending the scouting trip to Marco Simone in two weeks.

“The last few years have been a lot, but at the same time, that’s what I’ve been grinding for, trying to get back in shape and to feel good for this moment,” he said. “Super excited. It’s gonna be a fun week.”

Fowler kept his card on the number in 2022 but, after reuniting with swing coach Butch Harmon, is arguably as good as he’s ever been statistically. Fowler finished the Tour season ranked 11th in strokes gained: total – a 122-spot improvement from last year – and won for the first time in four years this summer in Detroit. He has a 3-7-5 record in four Ryder Cup appearances.

“I feel like I can play with just about anyone. In the past I’ve kind of been a rover,” Fowler said last week at the Tour Championship. “I feel like I’m a good addition to the team room; I can bring some fun and lightheartedness. I feel like I can take care of some stuff on the golf course now that we’re back playing some good golf.”

Spieth will be making his fifth consecutive Ryder Cup appearance, and he’s coming off a 5-0 performance in last year’s Presidents Cup. Morikawa hasn’t won in more than two years but he tied for fourth last week at the Tour Championship and is one of the game’s preeminent iron players. In his only other Ryder Cup appearance, in 2021, Morikawa won three of his team matches alongside Dustin Johnson.

“We know the history. That’s all the past,” Morikawa said of the Americans’ well-documented futility across the pond. “We want to create new memories and history for the U.S. side.”

The last of the six wildcard picks had at least some level of intrigue, but Johnson chose another 20-something in Sam Burns. The 27-year-old won the WGC-Match Play this year and, even during what he considered a disappointing season, still tied for ninth in the FedExCup. He’s also an elite putter and close friend of Scottie Scheffler, the Americans’ leading points-earner this year. Last year at Quail Hollow, they combined for a 0-2-1 record in partner play.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t my No. 1 goal,” Burns said. “I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. For me personally, there’s no higher honor than representing your country, and to tee it up with these world-class players, I’m extremely excited.”

Scheffler, Wyndham Clark, Brian Harman, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and Max Homa had already qualified for the team. Johnson said he and those players met last week at the Tour Championship to discuss how best to fill out the rest of the team.

“To say I’m excited about these gents would be an understatement – they check all the boxes,” Johnson said. “Fierce competitors, great versatility, great flexibility when it comes to pairings and the fit for Marco Simone. A great fit for each other, which is massive.”

Left off the stacked squad were long-hitting Cameron Young, who remains winless on Tour but made his cup debut last year at the Presidents Cup; Lucas Glover, the veteran who claimed back-to-back events this month, including the playoff opener, to earn serious consideration; and Keegan Bradley, the resurgent 37-year-old who won twice this season and desperately wanted to make his first cup team in nine years. Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson, who were outside the top 40 in points because of their standing on LIV, did not receive a call from Johnson.

Before departing East Lake on Sunday night, Bradley said the next 24 hours would be “hell” as he waited to see if he’d done enough to warrant a pick.

“Hopefully I get a chance to play on this team,” Bradley said. “If I don’t, I’m going to be rooting hard. In years’ past it’s been really hard for me to watch the Ryder Cup, because I just haven’t been in the conversation to be on the team. But this year, if I don’t make the team, it will be different. I’ll watch, and I’ll be pulling for the guys just as if I was playing.”

All 12 of the U.S. Ryder Cuppers are ranked 26th or better in the world. Then again, the Americans have often enjoyed a dramatic world-ranking edge that hasn’t translated to more success overseas. U.S. captain’s picks have particularly struggled in the past two away Ryder Cups, with the group combining to go 2-5-2 and 2-10 in 2014 and ’18, respectively.

“This team, and this younger group over the last few years, they go over there almost more excited,” Spieth said. “I don’t think there’s any hesitation going over there that they wouldn’t embrace going into that environment almost more so than home turf. It’s probably a pretty collective thinking for us.”

European captain Luke Donald will make his six picks next Monday, following the conclusion of the European Masters.

Four players have already clinched their spot on the home team: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland and Tyrrell Hatton. Tommy Fleetwood and Robert MacIntyre currently occupy the last of the six automatic spots, with Matt Fitzpatrick, Justin Rose, Shane Lowry, Sepp Straka, Adrian Meronk, Nicolai Hojgaard, Yannik Paul, Ludvig Aberg and Victor Perez all believed to be under consideration to fill out the rest of the European roster.