Travelers Championship

TPC River Highlands

Ryder Cup

Ryder Cup 2023: Thomas and Spieth stumble late, but Zach Johnson is running them back any way

September 29, 2023

Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth earned a half point on Friday, but only after watching their 2-up lead with five holes to play disappear in afternoon fourballs.

Maddie Meyer/PGA of America

ROME — It wasn’t until 2:01 p.m. local time that the U.S. Ryder Cup team gained its first faint glimmer of hope. Justin Thomas holed a nine-footer for birdie, and America had its first lead of the day. Yep, that’s right. Five hours and 26 minutes after the 44th Ryder Cup had begun, there finally appeared some red on the scoreboard.

The fog of a blue morning was lifted. At least for a little while. And that it was Thomas who fought to give the Americans a ray of hope seemed somewhat poetic. There were questions about whether or not the two-time PGA champion should even be at Marco Simone. It was a good thing he was.

With his favorite running mate Jordan Spieth struggling down the stretch, it was left to Thomas to play two-on-one golf over the final five holes. The Americans were 2 up standing on the 14th tee, and Thomas grinded to hold on for dear life to gain a tie against Viktor Hovland and Tyrell Hatton.

U.S. captain Zach Johnson needed more from his all-star pairing, which has never lost together in four-ball. They were supposed to set a tone to change the complexion of the matches after the Americans lost all four morning foursomes games to leave themselves in an awful predicament.

“It’s very early, so there’s no reason to panic,” vice-captain Steve Stricker said as he followed the U.S. pair. “But, yeah, this is kind of a big match for us.”

It ended up even bigger as the U.S. looked poised to win twice only to see Europe hole key putts on 18 to forge ties in the final two games.

With Spieth struggling, Thomas had to shoulder even more of a burden than simply proving he belonged, but he validated Johnson’s trust in him as a captain’s pick.

“We fought hard. Felt like it could have just as easily gone the other way. It's a bummer,” said Thomas, 30, who was one of only two players (with Max Homa) to play in the Fortinet Championship two weeks ago to sharpen his game for Marco Simone. “It's not the start we wanted but fortunately for us we've got a lot of golf left. We'll just go get some sleep, regroup and go try to win as many points as possible tomorrow.”

Thomas and Spieth, who sat out foursomes Friday morning, go off in the first foursomes game Saturday against Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood. That's something of a surprise given how poorly Spieth played. He birdied two par 3s, the first with a chip in at the fourth and the second at No. 13 that put the Americans two ahead. Then he was in his pocket the remainder of the round. The Texan was last in strokes gained among the 16 players who competed in four-ball at -4.68.

Thomas countered at 1.59 in total strokes gained. He was as solid as Johnson hoped he would be, even if he did have a few hiccups of his own, including a key miss for birdie at 16 that let the Europeans tie things up.

“Yeah, I mean, proud of those boys. I mean, the way they came out,” Johnson said. “Jordan didn't have his best possible, but that's why we're in tandems, and Justin … those two guys know what they are doing in this arena. And Justin does what Justin does.”

Apparently, he has great trust that Spieth will lift his game—he went straight to the range after the match—and that his synergy with Thomas will lead to America's first win of the week.

After a 4-0 foursomes beat-down Friday morning, Johnson has no choice but to turn to tried-and-true pairings. It’s early, but already late for the American team.