News & Opinion

Thomas scouts France without Ryder mates

Justin Thomas was 14 years old the first time he traveled to France to play in the Evian Junior Masters Cup. He thought it might have been his first time outside of the U.S. until his mom, Jani, reminded him that he had played an AJGA event in Mexico.

"Well, it was my first time representing my country," Thomas said.

That week, Thomas and Jordan Spieth were roommates, and Thomas was reminded that he beat Spieth by eight strokes.

Justin Thomas
Justin Thomas enters this week’s HNA French Open as the only probable American Ryder Cup player to get a competitive course preview at Le Golf National.

© GOLFFILE/BRIAN SPURLOCK
Justin Thomas enters this week’s HNA French Open as the only probable American Ryder Cup player to get a competitive course preview at Le Golf National.

"I did, yeah," Thomas said. "I didn't want to say it, though."

This week, Thomas is back in France for the HNA French Open at Le Golf National near Versailles, which in late September will be the site of the Ryder Cup. Thomas, the reigning PGA Championship winner and World No. 2, is a virtual lock to make his debut representing the Stars and Stripes against Team Europe as the American side attempts to win its first Ryder Cup on foreign soil since 1993.

That's so long ago that Thomas, 25, was in diapers. So, what is Thomas doing teeing it up in a European Tour event rather than at the PGA Tour's Quicken Loans National hosted by his good pal Tiger Woods?

"Well, I was told by Captain [Jim] Furyk if I didn't go, he was going to bench me," Thomas cracked. Then he turned serious.

"I love that course," he said of TPC Potomac. "It's a great tournament, but I just was kind of looking at it in terms of, if there's a year to miss it, this would be a great time."

A great time, indeed, to go on a scouting trip. To me, this makes all the sense in the world. It's no different than Jack Nicklaus crossing the Atlantic and spending a week at Muirfield to learn the intricacies of the layout ahead of the British Open. Learn the course, get comfortable with the surroundings, go see the sights and come back in late September on a mission to retain the Ryder Cup.

So, why is Thomas the only American with a fighting chance to make the U.S. side in Paris? Shouldn't this week be the equivalent of a team reconnaissance mission and unofficial team qualifier? Maybe, I thought, I'm making too big of a deal of this, but then Tommy Fleetwood, the French Open's defending champion and hirsute runner-up at the U.S. Open, agreed with me. 

"I'm a little bit surprised that there's only him here," Fleetwood said. "Everybody has their own schedule, and I mean at the end of the day it's very difficult playing the schedule these days, just with so many big tournaments either way, PGA Tour or European Tour. I probably would have expected a couple more, at least."

So did Spaniard Jon Rahm, another lock to make his Ryder Cup debut, who expected at least four or five of the top Yanks to stamp their passports this week and check out Le Golf National.

"It is good for you to play this golf course as many times as you can to get comfortable on the course," he said. "If it wasn't the players that were already in guaranteed, maybe the people who are on the edge. I thought they were going to come to show their interest, and maybe if they had a good week, they can show that they can compete on this golf course."

Jon, you are preaching to the choir, but sing it. 

If you thought surely that Furyk is teeing it up there, well, you'd be wrong, too.

"I don't have to play it," he said with a smile, before noting he has played it several times and will be making another trip there soon. 

Furyk downplayed the importance of getting an early look. He pointed out that Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar and Brooks Koepka (multiple times) have played in the French Open. Furyk has scheduled a voluntary outing July 13-14 for what he estimated would be five potential U.S. players coinciding with Bastille Day ahead of the British Open at Carnoustie. Still, this seems like a missed opportunity for America in what undoubtedly will be a tightly-contested match this fall.

If Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed were competing at the French Open this week, would it lessen Europe's home-field advantage? Thomas Bjorn, Europe's Ryder Cup captain, isn't so sure. He contended that the best golfers in the world make their living showing up at a new venue and figuring out its puzzle.

And to be fair, it's not just Americans who passed on the French Open (tee times). Italian Francesco Molinari, who is ranked fourth in the European Ryder Cup team points, is playing Quicken Loans this week in hopes of improving his position in the FedEx Cup standings. (He ranks No. 123, and only the top 125 qualify for the playoffs and keep their PGA Tour cards.)

"People believe that when they are on form and in the right frame of mind, they can play any golf course," Bjorn said.

I spoke to enough pros on this subject that they almost swayed me to think that I was making too big of a deal about the importance of learning Le Golf National ahead of time. As Thomas said, "It's all right in front of you. It's not like there's any hidden tricks or anything like that."

But then Thomas said this: "There could be some stuff of playing in some wind conditions this week that maybe we don't have for practice rounds that week where I can help the team."

In other words, maybe there is an advantage to being in France this week. Mark this one on the scoreboard as U.S. 1 down.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email:golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak