SHEBOYGAN — The buzz around Whistling Straits is about big drives, huge throngs of people and a U.S. team so talented it will have to search for ways to throw away this Ryder Cup.
But the Americans' chances of reclaiming the Cup will likely revolve around a pair of young stars who became fast friends long before they became household names.
Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas almost surely will be paired together in both foursomes and fourballs beginning Friday on the shore of Lake Michigan. What they deliver will go a long way toward deciding the Americans' chances of reversing their fortunes in a team event that has not gone their way in recent years.
They won big together outside Paris three years ago, going 3-1 in the team matches. That wasn’t enough to make up for teammates collapsing around them, but it was a pretty good indication Spieth and Thomas would be forces for years to come in the Ryder Cup.
While U.S. captain Steve Stricker has some decisions to make in most pairings, the Spieth-Thomas combination isn’t one of them.
Not that Stricker was about to reveal his planned pairings before their time.
“We’ve had a pretty good game plan from a while back, and we’re putting that into play,” Stricker said. “We’re putting that in place.”
While much of the attention has been centered on big-hitting Bryson DeChambeau and who he’s playing with — most likely not Brooks Koepka — Stricker has a lot of options on a team so talented it includes 11 of the top 20 players in the world — and Scottie Scheffler sitting at No. 21.
But if there was ever a natural pairing on an American squad focused increasingly on team camaraderie, it’s Spieth and Thomas, who first met when they were 13 and Thomas was so short he was hitting fairway woods into most par 4s.
Composed beyond his years even then, Spieth came up and introduced himself to Thomas on the driving range at a junior tournament in Dallas when they were paired together in the final round.
“I thought that was cool,” Thomas said when recounting the encounter. “And he beat me that day. I think I finished third, I don’t know, second. I didn’t play very well.”
Spieth would win that week in his first major junior event, and the two traded top finishes over the summer until both were picked to represent the U.S. in the Evian Masters Junior Cup in France. They bonded even more on the trip, and when Thomas won a spot in the Evian Masters pro-am with Juli Inkster, it was Spieth who carried his clubs.
Eleven years later they were both major championship winners, and their pairing together at Le Golf National in the last Ryder Cup was as natural as a plate of steak and frites.
What wasn’t so natural was the experience of standing on the first tee for Thomas, who was playing in his first Ryder Cup.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Thomas said. “Fourball is pretty kind of lenient on who goes first, who doesn’t, but he was just like, do you want to go first or me? He knew it was going to take a couple holes for me to settle in and I rode my horse until I finally got comfortable.”
Spieth and Thomas would win that best-ball match against Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton, only to get spanked in the afternoon alternate-shot match by Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood, who were making a name for themselves in France as the “Moliwood” team.
But on the second day they would win both matches, dealing European Ryder Cup star Ian Poulter losses in each, one with Jon Rahm as his partner and the other with Rory McIlroy. Between them, they would account for four of the 10.5 points scored by the U.S. in a Ryder Cup otherwise dominated by Europe.
More importantly, they won two points in foursomes, the alternate-shot format that the U.S. always seems to struggle with in the Ryder Cup.
“Fourballs is obviously a lot easier,” Thomas said. “You’re playing your own ball. Realistically you don’t even have to talk to your partner. You kind of do your own thing and it’s easier to get in a rhythm. But foursomes I think it’s pretty important to put two personalities together, two friends together, two guys that get along, maybe their games complement each other.”
The Spieth and Thomas pairing pretty much checks all those boxes, which means it’s possible the two play together all four team matches as they did in France. It’s the kind of strategy the Europeans have used to great effect over the years, a point not lost on the American squad.
“You’ve got to be prepared to play them all, but expect to be watching as well and trusting they want people rested for Sunday,” Spieth said. “We know the Euros typically have a different strategy. They’re going to play probably four or five guys five matches regardless and some of the other guys will probably play two or three. And you expect to see the same guys out that we’ve seen for a number of years now five times.”
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