Justin Thomas is one of the leaders Tiger Woods will count on, now and in the future

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Justin Thomas is one of the leaders Tiger Woods will count on, now and in the future

2019 Presidents Cup

Justin Thomas is one of the leaders Tiger Woods will count on, now and in the future

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After a Paris pasting the first two days of the 2018 Ryder Cup, the red, white and blue was thoroughly black and blue.

After jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the opening session, the Americans lost the next eight matches – tying a Ryder Cup record for futility – and trailed their European rivals 10-6 heading into Sunday’s singles at Le Golf National.

Was a comeback improbable? No, for the U.S. overcame the same deficit on home soil in 1999. Was a comeback unlikely? Absolutely, especially seeing as the U.S. players were having a grim time getting a handle on the tight course with plenty of nasty rough.

And the Americans knew the opposition’s heart and soul, Rory McIlroy, would be in the leadoff position to thump any faint hopes they clung to heading into Sunday.

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Climbing the fringes of the Eiffel Tower would have been an easier proposition.

U.S. captain Jim Furyk needed someone to stare down McIlroy and supply a spark for his team. Furyk had plenty of stars to choose from, including Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler.

Instead, and without hesitation, Furyk tabbed a Ryder Cup newbie.

“I was nervous,” Justin Thomas said about the assignment. “It was one of the best honors I’ve gotten without receiving a trophy. It was pretty cool that it was my rookie year in the Ryder Cup, and my captain had that kind of faith in me.

“We needed to go out and get a point.”

Thomas rewarded his captain’s faith by defeating McIlroy in a titanic tussle that ended on the final hole when McIlroy conceded after hitting into a bunker and then water. Thomas proved his mettle, especially when, after winning the first hole, he didn’t wilt when McIlroy took the lead by winning holes 2, 3 and 4.

Thomas’ 1-up victory, however, only stalled the inevitable, as Europe wrapped up its beating for the cup, 17½-10½. But from the ashes, a leader was born, as Thomas was one of the few bright spots leaving the City of Lights.

Cameron Smith, Adam Scott and Ernie Els of the International team and Tiger Woods, Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas of the U.S. team pose with the Presidents Cup on Dec. 9, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

“He’ll be one of my horses down in Australia,” said Woods, who will captain the American forces against the Internationals in the Presidents Cup this week at Royal Melbourne. “He’s going to be one of the more dominant players over the next decade or so. He’ll be one of the leaders on the team and on future teams.

“He’s extremely fiery. That’s what we want, a bunch of guys like that.”

Hearing that, coming from the man he’s idolized since first picking up a cut-down golf club, made Thomas smile. While he excels in an individual sport, he thirsts for and thrives in team competitions. It always has been that way for Thomas, from his high school days through his winning ways for the Crimson Tide.

A force on Tour

In Maui ahead of the 2016 Sentry Tournament of Champions, Thomas said as much when he revealed he’d rather be on a winning Ryder Cup team than capture a major championship. He came close to making it to Hazeltine that year in which the U.S. romped over Europe. The following year, he took care of winning a major – the 2017 PGA Championship – and played in his first Presidents Cup.

He quickly displayed his might by posting a 3-1-1 record as the Americans won the Presidents Cup in a rout. Then he made his Ryder Cup debut a success as he teamed with Spieth to win three of four matches and toppled McIlroy.

“I’m going to count on him in Australia and I have no doubt he’ll deliver,” Woods said. “I’ve seen his growth as a player because I practice with him quite a bit at home. I’ve seen him grow and develop as a player. He understands how to play the game a little bit better. Just look at the results.”

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In 2017, he won the PGA and the FedEx Cup during a five-win campaign. This year, he won the BMW Championship during the FedEx Cup Playoffs in August and the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in Korea in October.

With his latest victory, Thomas joined Woods, McIlroy, Spieth and Jack Nicklaus as the only players in the past 60 seasons to win 11 times on the PGA Tour before turning 27.

And Thomas, 26, has won 10 times since the start of the 2016-17 season, the most on Tour.

“When he came out on Tour, I was off the Tour,” Woods said. “But he’d come over to the house, we’d go out for dinners, and we practiced a lot (in Florida), and you knew he was going to be a force out here.”

The U.S. will need Thomas to be a force – both on the course and in the team room. Koepka, the world’s No. 1 player, is out as he nurses a bum knee. Johnson will arrive in Oz having played zero tournaments since August following knee surgery. Fowler will have played just once since August.

And there’s no Spieth, who was a leader in the past four team events. But Spieth has no doubts about Thomas leading the U.S. troops.

‘No-fear mentality’

Spieth would know, for no one on the Tour has played more golf with Thomas than he has. The two met when they were 14 and they’ve stayed close.

“Guys certainly look at him as a leader, whether with a pep talk or making noise with his clubs,” Spieth said. “He has taken that role into the team room as a young leader. He has a no-fear mentality. He embraces being in those situations, that he’s going to stomp-on-their-throats kind of stuff.

“As someone who has played alongside him and ahead and behind him in team events, it’s pretty awesome to see. That kind of makes everyone else more comfortable, that you have that kind of presence out there with you.”

That’s just Thomas being Thomas. While he admits he felt he should stay in the background of the team room as a rookie, the feeling didn’t last.

“I don’t think it matters if you’re a rookie or a veteran when it comes to motivational stuff,” Thomas said. “That’s what I learned at Alabama, in high school, on the Walker Cup team. I’ve always enjoyed team golf. I like the role of trying to pump someone up.

“I want to talk to guys and get our team morale up. I always tell the captains that I’m there for them and I’ll do whatever they want me to do.”

In other words, he was built for these team competitions, circles them on his calendar, lists them as one of his goals.

“It’s the best,” Thomas said of wearing the team colors. “It’s a feeling you really can’t describe. I feel like a different person, almost like I’m immortal, if you will. It’s kind of bizarre.

“When I’m standing on that tee and they say my name and then say United States and I’m out there as one of the 12 guys playing for the team and captain and country, I feel better than I actually am. It’s pretty surreal.”

And at the same time, all very real.

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