Jared C Tilton

Reading the Ryder Cup tea leaves is never easy, particularly in the modern era of circumspect captains holding their cards very close to their vests (note: this doesn’t stop me from trying). But in the case of Justin Thomas, things are becoming clearer. As much as anything can be definitive at this stage, this week at the Wyndham Championship seems definitively like a do-or-die situation for Thomas and his hopes of making the US Ryder Cup team.

After Thursday’s opening round, he didn’t come down definitively on either the “do” or “die” side, but we can safely say that his second round has become Code Red critical. With an even-par 70, complete with two birdies and two bogeys, Thomas finished in a tie for 68th. The leader (Russell Henley) is already at eight-under, and Sedgefield Country Club isn’t known as one of the tour’s hardest courses. Thomas now finds himself in a position where he definitely can’t gain a spot on the Ryder Cup with a single round, but he might be able to lose it. The road to proving himself has to start with making the cut at the Wyndham — there’s simply no alternative.

If you’re not up to date on Thomas’ status at the moment, here are the bullet points:

He’s already the greatest Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup player of his American generation, with a wild 16-5-3 record at this stage in his career.

Which is the only thing keeping him in the discussion right now, because he’s in the midst of a mighty struggle. After winning the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in May 2022, it’s been a stumble that has now threatened to turn into a free-fall. His recent history is dire: five missed cuts in the last seven events, a T-60 at the Genesis Scottish Open, and only a T-9 at the Travelers to brighten things up. The lowlight came at the Open Championship on Thursday, when he turned in an 82 before recovering with a 71.

Zach Johnson, the US captain, is concerned, and said as much at Hoylake, while at the same reiterating Thomas’ terrific record and generally sounding supportive. But it was vice captain Fred Couples, speaking off the cuff on his radio show, who gave us the greater insight, saying, “the whole world knows that JT’s gotta go to, is it Minnesota, and then Greensboro? He’s gotta go to those places and play well.” That quote is our best piece of evidence that Thomas doesn’t have an automatic spot on the team, and needs to show some kind of form before Johnson makes his picks.

In Minnesota, at the 3M Open, Thomas once again missed the cut. This despite switching his putter in hopes of reversing one of his greatest struggles (he came into the 3M ranked 160th on the season in strokes gained/putting).

Which brings us to Greensboro and the Wyndham, where Thomas is back using his old putter, by the way. According to the PGA Tour, Thomas needs a top-15 finish to get inside the top 70 threshold in FedEx Cup points to qualify for the playoffs, which would give him at least one more tournament start to impress the captains. Anything short of that, and well his season just might be over. The bar he has to clear to make the playoffs seems to dovetail nicely with the task of showing that he’s Ryder Cup ready, because at this point, a decent-but-not-superlative finish at Sedgefield (let’s say 25th) doesn’t seem like nearly enough to make a point with Johnson and his vices.

In other words, it’s playoffs or bust for Thomas, and this is his last chance.

Professional golfers compete under a tremendous amount of pressure every week, but this is a lot to heap on Thomas’ shoulders at a time when his game is only limping along (at best). But it is a great piece of drama for the Wyndham Championship, a tournament that may have seemed to drop in status just a little this year. In prior years, the Wyndham was everything for players trying to make the playoffs, trying to keep their tour cards and grabbing at various pieces of status in the final tournament of the regular season. But with the advent of the FedEx Cup autumn series and the return to a calendar year schedule, the true finish line for being inside the top 125 and assuring tour eligibility has shifted to Sea Island in November.

Still, the Wyndham is an event that seems to find ways to stay relevant and exciting, and Thomas’ lonely quest to make the Ryder Cup team by hook or by crook has already added great drama to the event’s opening days.