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Justin Thomas pays the price for saying he'd rather win the Ryder Cup than a major in 2016

Justin Thomas catches hell for a perfectly reasonable but unexpected answer.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Justin Thomas answered a very simple and innocent question in a Golf Channel interview at the PGA Tour's 2016 opener in Maui.

I'll admit, I binge watched Netflix's Making a Murderer in two days and have been perusing Reddit-related conspiracy theories discussion since the minute the series ended. It's made me doubt anything I've ever been told, and I'm now convinced that minor coincidences that occur in my life are part of a huge conspiracy. I'm going to assume that the reaction to Justin Thomas' answer for Mark Rolfing comes from the same part of my brain as the paranoia I'm experiencing, because his response shot things off into orbit in this first week of the year. Here's the video, where Rolfing asks if Thomas would rather win a major this year or be on a winning Ryder Cup team:

Thomas' immediate response was that he'd rather be on a winning Ryder Cup team come this October, and it's not really a question for him.

Golf Channel's Chris DiMarco was flabbergasted. A Golf Digest article couldn't get through the title without questioning the legitimacy of Thomas' answer, added the qualifier "if you take him at his word," and concluded that he was playing a "PR game." Voices across GolfTwitter (for example, the replies to this tweet) somehow felt qualified to make broad, sweeping statements about the answer, as if they could relate to a 22-year-old PGA Tour winner. Thomas even chimed in on Twitter himself to address the drama around it:

It's no secret that I am an fanboy admirer of Mr. Thomas' game, which is part of the motivation behind mustering the energy to actually get worked up about this. But the logic applies across the board to golf media right now. We complain and complain about boring, PR-driven and vanilla press conference answers such as "hopefully I can go shoot a low one tomorrow," or "I like where my game is at." Yet any time someone opens up even slightly and gives a legitimate answer to the question posed, it's flipped into a headline. This is the reason why no one wants to give the media an honest answer.

First of all, this is not that significant a choice. This isn't LeBron James choosing a team in free agency or a bachelor handing out a rose. It's also not comparable to a team sport question, such as "would you rather win an MVP award or a championship?" It's a hypothetical that is kind of fun and interesting, but can also ignite overboard narratives about American golf or Thomas individually that mean absolutely nothing.

The question itself is a fine one. I could easily see myself asking this question to a Tour player, and I would be curious to hear the answer. It's a fun question to see how much weight a player places on the different types of events. It's not like he said he wouldn't give up material possessions for a major, because, no one would actually say that, right?

Thomas is one of these young, ascendant stars the Tour is pushing, but he's 22 years old, has never played on a Ryder Cup team and has his entire career in front of him. If Rolfing is asking this question to a player at a later point in his career, I'm probably less intrigued to hear the answer. For example, Sergio Garcia, who turns 36 this week and has been a member of several winning Ryder Cup teams, may choose the major and I wouldn't blame him one bit for it. Colin Montgomerie was also on several winning teams, and even won one as a captain, but you're kidding yourself if you think he wouldn't trade that for a mulligan on his approach to the 72nd hole at Winged Foot in 2006. I wouldn't blame anyone for saying they would rather win a major than a Ryder Cup. So what is the point in calling someone a liar when the answer is different from what we expected?

Rolfing: "This year, would you rather win a major, or be a part of a winning Ryder Cup team?"

Thomas: "Winning Ryder Cup team, hands down."


I didn't even have to make that headline up! Now let's flip it to the other option:

Rolfing: "This year, would you rather win a major, or be a part of a winning Ryder Cup team?"

Thomas: "As much as being on a winning Ryder Cup team would mean to me, if you're giving me the chance to become a major winner and get over that hump, I've gotta say winning a major."

Probable Headline: If You're Wondering Why the U.S. Keeps Losing Ryder Cups, Look No Further Than Justin Thomas' Answer

We've been pining for some fire from the American side when it comes to the Ryder Cup, and with the Cup coming to the U.S. this year for the first time since that 2012 collapse at Medinah, a young potential Ryder Cupper says that being a part of a team that wins this trophy is his biggest goal for the year. And this is somehow an absurd statement? If he makes it onto the team, doesn't that mean he's had a pretty special year, regardless of whether or not he's won a major? Think about how often we hear from players about how nervous they get during the Ryder Cup, and how that type of pressure and excitement is unmatched by any other golf event on the face of the planet.

The interesting and unexpected answer seemed to work people up to the point that the actual context of the question was left behind. He was not asking if Thomas would rather have a major-less career or a 2016 Ryder Cup win. It's simply these next four major starts in what will hopefully be a career full of them.

The tenor of the current Ryder Cup cannot be ignored. It's arguably the biggest event in golf and as intense as ever. It's a real fight for the Americans now, and one in which they've largely been battered for the past 20 years. Thomas knows this. He's seen his contemporaries Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed break out and perform better than any American duo in their first Ryder Cup in 2014. He's seen the task forces, the army of assistant captains and the PGA of America efforts to try and stop the European machine, and the hopeful forecasts of a roster that might be turning over with plenty of new 20-something talents. And he's succeeded in these team competitions as a junior and amateur.

Considering the context, it's not that shocking of an answer and the prompt, instinctual reply looked like the opposite of some calculated PR move.

Golf is an individual sport and it always will be. Even if you've got a huge fan following "screaming and cheering you on," it's an individual sport. When you line up against the other 155 players in a field, every single one of them is trying to beat you, and other than the guy carrying your bag, you are on your own. Sure, if you end up lifting the trophy on Sunday, your friends on the tour are going to be there to support you, congratulate you and be genuinely happy for you. But there is nothing you can do in a normal individual event, major or not, that would make 11 of your peers do this:

For a youngster with an extremely bright future, and legitimate shots at majors for the next two decades, how is his answer not reasonable?

The reaction and headlines from that answer will only reinforce the commonly held belief among players that it's not worth it to depart from the vanilla cliches of Tour pros that we often moan about. PGA Tour players have taken note of the no-win situation they often find themselves in:

Remember when Rory was on the hot seat for "throwing shade" for making the observation that Tiger and Phil are past the prime of their careers? Media and fans jumped all over him. Rory did not bother apologizing for his honest answer.

I spoke with Thomas last night, and after a day of reaction and overreaction, he stands by everything he said. Let's get this golf season going now.

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