Captains come into their own
First published in The Telegraph on the 3rd August 2016.
Squeaky-thumb time is approaching for the captains and their assistants as they run their digits down the qualifying lists and decide their picks for Hazeltine. With the majors now completed, the clock starts ticking very quickly indeed.
At least one thing is clear. Jimmy Walker’s breakthrough win at the US PGA means that neither team can go in with bragging rights. The 37-year-old’s one-shot victory over world No 1 Jason Day made it the United States 2, Europe 2 in the 2016 majors. And that seems highly appropriate as the two teams do appear finely balanced.
The wild cards could turn out to be the decisive factor in Minnesota next month and, as ridiculous as it seems, Davis Love would probably not want his selections to be so clear cut at the moment, while Darren Clarke is likely to be very glad that his picture seems more confused.
Flexibility is everything for a captain and, as it stands, Love appears to have exactly none of it.
It is incredible to think that the four players who will represent the United States in the Olympics – Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar – are outside the automatic eight who will make Hazeltine by right. And that two of this Star Spangled quartet – Fowler and Watson – are ranked sixth and seventh in the world respectively.
That is to do with the vagaries of the qualifying system and, because of the American formula offering double points for the majors, much changed in the standings after Sunday. Walker leapt from 29th to fourth, Brooks Koepka from ninth to fifth, with Watson and Matt Kuchar falling out.
Love revealed to Sky Sports that Tiger Woods, his assistant, had already decided who the four should be. “He’s already picked his four,” Love said.
“I can’t tell you who they are, but he knows who he wants to watch and who he wants to manage and who he’ll get along with. I think Paul Azinger [in 2008] really showed us that breaking it down into small groups and having each group be responsible for themselves is kind of the way to go, and Tiger’s all over that. He has also texted me some pairings and some groupings. Tiger’s kind of our tactician a little bit. He’s a guy that’s probably one of the most prepared when he shows up at a golf tournament.”
No doubt he was and is, but he likely made his mind up on the wild cards and pairings before Baltusrol. Now it appears very straightforward. Granted, much can change as there are still four tournaments to go – although, interestingly, the Olympics does not count, despite being worth world-ranking points – but from this far out it all looks annoyingly set out for Love; especially as he spent so much of his time with the media at the US PGA talking about the need to remain open-minded.
“The wild cards could turn out to be the decisive factor”
“Over the years, we’ve gone from two to three to four picks so that we have some flexibility to get what we need and to round out our team and make it not all rookies or make it not all veterans,” Love said. “When you look at it, you look at, remember Jack Nicklaus [in 1983 and 1987] saying, I’m just going to take the top 12 and make it easy. But when we look, we are probably looking a little farther than people think.
“Obviously, Phil [Mickelson] last year for the Presidents Cup was in the twenties [in the standings] and was picked and was the star of the team. And I don’t know how far down Rickie was in 2010 in Wales, but he got picked because his putter was hot and everybody wanted him on the team.”
Love even went as far to suggest that they would take the wives into account. “I can pick to make some pairings and to have some fun guys in the team room and even, you don’t think about it, but the wives, as well,” he said. “When we pick, we’re a group of 24, 26 people going on a mission, and you have to make sure that you have good team chemistry.”
Most of this is wise, of course, but one must wonder what dropping one of that garlanded four would do for “team chemistry”.
Fowler, as Love pointed out, is very popular and has won four titles in the past 16 months, including the Players Championship last year.
Watson’s length is entirely suited to Hazeltine and he has won three times in the past 12 months with five other top-three finishes.
Reed was one of the few bright American lights at the last Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, winning three points out of three and taking down Henrik Stenson in the singles.
Kuchar is regarded as one of the most consistent players in the world and is again extremely popular in the team room.
To snub any of these would be a big story.
But then, if Koepka comes up short in the next four weeks, then how does he overlook the world No 17? Here is a 26-year-old so desperate to appear for his country that he defied a foot injury to tee it up at the US PGA. He was 70-30 against playing on the Tuesday, but shrugged off the pain to finish in a tie for fourth, despite not playing for more than a month.
He could not even feel his foot by the end of the marathon Sunday and acknowledged that, no, he would not have played had the Ryder Cup not been on the line. There is a school of thought that says that Love should tell Koepka not to worry about his spot and that he will be picked regardless.
All of this must be running through Love’s mind and more. Together with the pairings and the order, the wild cards are the biggest influence the captains can have on the match and this is why the forthcoming weeks are so vital.
For his part, Clarke is on holiday in the Bahamas with Lee Westwood, Danny Willett and the trio’s manager, Chubby Chandler. Expect there to be many a late-night session analysing who the picks should be.
It will not be at all awkward as Westwood is a certainty to get the nod anyway, and so is Martin Kaymer, after the German finished eighth in the US PGA. But if the automatic top nine stays the same – and it is odds-on it will – then who gets the other pick?
Clarke has five rookies in the team and may want another veteran alongside Westwood and Kaymer, but there is not an obvious one playing well. Francesco Molinari, perhaps, or does he go for another hot first-timer such as the young Englishman Tyrrell Hatton – who followed up his second and fifth at the Scottish Open and Open with a tie for 10th at Baltusrol – or the US-based Scot Russell Knox.
Decisions, decisions... this is when the captains come into their own.