There aren’t many players in this week’s BMW Championship near Indianapolis who know what it’s like to celebrate a U.S. Ryder Cup victory, considering the Americans have won only once since 1999.
Phil Mickelson and J.B. Holmes were there on the winning side in 2008 at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky.
So, too, was Justin Thomas.
“Yeah,” he said, “when I was little.”
He was 15 then.
The son and grandson of teaching professionals, Thomas was born, raised and educated in Louisville. His father, Mike, was a past president of the Kentucky PGA when the PGA Championship came to Valhalla in 2000 and was on the PGA of America’s board when the Ryder Cup arrived in 2008.
Only 7 years old in 2000, Thomas walked beside his dad out of the Valhalla clubhouse with what he told schoolmates was the autograph of golf’s greatest player. He meant Jack Nicklaus while they assumed Tiger Woods, who won his third consecutive major championship that week.
Eight years later, Thomas and his mother, Jani, were at Valhalla’s 17th hole when Jim Furyk’s Sunday singles victory over Miguel Angel Jimenez closed out Europe and gave the Americans their first Ryder Cup victory since Sunday’s stirring comeback at the Country Club outside Boston in 1999.
Fellow Kentuckian and family friend Holmes grabbed the teenager and pulled him under the ropes and into the celebration, where Thomas just might have slapped high-fives with Mickelson.
“J.B. has always been really nice to me when he was starting out on tour and winning tournaments,” Thomas said. “For him to do that in the middle of something like the Ryder Cup — especially when I look back now — was really, really cool. … I got to celebrate with the guys a little. I guess I shouldn’t say with them, but I was there when they won at Valhalla.”
Now 23, Thomas is all grown up. He’s a big man’s hitter in a boyish body whom U.S. team captain Davis Love III will consider for one of his four remaining wild-card picks. Love will announce the first three of those picks Monday morning at Hazeltine National Golf Club and the last Sept. 25.
That’s the night before the U.S. and Europe teams fly to Minnesota to compete for the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National in Chaska that week.
Two of the world’s top 10 ranked players — No. 7 Bubba Watson and No. 9 Rickie Fowler — were not among the first eight automatic qualifiers finalized by a points system last week. Neither were Holmes, Furyk or Matt Kuchar.
Love simply could pick any four of the five and call it good, but he said he’s looking deeper down a list “than you might expect.” He said he’ll do so to find either a player who is “trending up” with the BMW and the Tour championships remaining before he makes his final 11th-hour captain’s pick or whose game or temperament best complements Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth or Patrick Reed, to name three of the first eight players already named to the U.S. team.
That list includes such players as Thomas and Ryan Moore, the 2004 U.S. Amateur Public Links match-play champion at Maple Grove’s Rush Creek who has three top-10 finishes — including a victory at the John Deere Classic — in his past four events.
In a display of unity, Thomas and Fowler are sporting mustaches for the FedEx Cup playoffs, on the way toward the Ryder Cup.
While still in high school, Thomas became the third-youngest golfer to make the cut in a PGA Tour event when he did so at the 2009 Wyndham Championship when he was 16 years, 3 months and 24 days old. He won an award given to college golf’s most outstanding player in 2012, was part of Alabama’s NCAA title team in 2013 and turned pro that same year.
Thomas won on the PGA Tour for the first time last fall in the CIMB Classic, a victory that didn’t bring any qualifying points because of new rules implemented after the U.S. team lost in 2014 for the eighth time in the past 10 Ryder Cups. Ranked 34th in the world and 14th in the FedEx Cup playoffs race, Thomas has six top-10 finishes this season, including ties for third at the Honda Classic, the Players Championship and last month’s Travelers Championship.
Love said he won’t hesitate to take a young player who doesn’t know what the pressure of a Ryder Cup is like.
“Justin has played a lot of high-level golf,” Love said. “He’s not a rookie. If you pick a guy like that, sure, he’ll be nervous, but so will Zach Johnson. We all get fired up and nervous.”