ATLANTA — The Tour Championship is a lot tougher than it needs to be for Justin Thomas.
He was among three players at Hazeltine — site of this year’s Ryder Cup — on Monday, a clear signal that Thomas, Daniel Berger and Bubba Watson were being considered by Davis Love III as the final captain’s pick to be announced Sunday night after the Tour Championship.
So instead of thinking only about East Lake, and possibly winning the FedEx Cup, there’s a distraction.
“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with when it comes to not thinking about it,” Thomas said after opening with a 68 on Thursday. “It’s one thing to come down the stretch of a tournament and not think about winning, but I’ve just had so long to think about the Ryder Cup. And for people to say they don’t think about it, I think is absurd. It enters my mind every round at some point.”
It could be worse.
He could be Kevin Chappell, who didn’t get invited at all. Neither did Kevin Kisner.
“Not one time have I been contacted by Davis,” Chappell said matter-of-factly after a 66 to tie for the lead.
Chappell has never won on the PGA Tour. He has three runner-up finishes this season in which someone simply outplayed him — Jason Day, the world’s No. 1 player, at Bay Hill and The Players Championship; and Kisner at the RSM Classic at Sea Island, where Love is the tournament host.
Was he offended that he didn’t get an invite?
“I wasn’t personally offended,” Chappell said. “But I disagree with having non-members practicing with the team. It sets a bad precedent for the players who thought they were on the bubble, or thought they had a chance.”
Kisner said he was not invited to Hazeltine. When asked if he was offended by that, he replied, “Probably.” He doesn’t know why he wasn’t asked to take part, and he wasn’t inclined to ask Love for a reason.
“I figure he’ll call me when he needs me,” Kisner said.
Waiting to make the final pick just five days before the Ryder Cup starts might be more absurd than assembling a “Ryder Cup Task Force” that cooked up this idea.
The plan was to make sure the Americans had the hot player available to them at the last minute. But to listen to the players — those who received invitations and those who didn’t — makes it unclear if it matters who’s hot.
Love said last month in New York, after eight players qualified for his team, that he would have to pay attention to dozens of players.
“Anybody in the top 100 has to be on our radar because a guy could get hot the next two weeks and move himself to the Tour Championship and be in the running for the FedEx Cup,” Love said on Aug. 29. “And I get to pick him on Sunday night.”
So why not invite every American to Hazeltine who qualified for the Tour Championship and was not on the team?
Maybe they already have been ruled out, which certainly appears to be the case with Chappell and Kisner, along with Memorial winner William McGirt, Gary Woodland, Jason Dufner and others.
Love has said one awkward part of this process was making phone calls. He might be inclined to call those who didn’t make the team on the same night he shared the good news with those who did. Because there is one more pick, perhaps he needs to wait on those calls.
And so everyone waits.
But is anyone paying attention to what happens at East Lake? Apparently not.
“There’s nothing I can do now,” Watson said. “Davis said it’s all about strategies and different things. It’s not about my play. It’s not about anybody’s play. So I can’t worry about that.”
That suggests that it’s not about performance, which runs counter to what Love said a month ago before the FedEx Cup playoffs began.
“The only thing I know that he told me — and he’s told everybody — is that it’s about who matches up well. I don’t know what that means,” Watson said. I don’t know if it’s about partners, if a guy matches up better with two people or a guy matches up better with three people. I don’t know that. I know the same as you, except I got to see the course. I went and played a practice round. So I know a little bit more, I guess.”
Thomas doesn’t quite understand, either. He’s just trying to play good golf at East Lake because that won’t hurt. Why the invitations to play Hazeltine?
“Obviously there was some, or else we wouldn’t have been there,” he said.
None of this will matter a week from today.
The grandstands that Thomas and Watson saw set up across Hazeltine will be packed with fans. No one will be talking about who wasn’t picked or who wasn’t on the team. All that counts is who’s playing and the score.
Until then, Love is waiting until the last minute for a hot hand when that player could get nothing but a cold shoulder.