Team Announcement Preview
The phoney war is over. After two years of talk, conjecture and planning, September sees the two teams take shape as the deadline for automatic selection passes and the captains announce their wildcard decisions.
Few things are as revealing about the captain as his choices for the wildcard. Is he a risk taker or a conservative? Does he put his trust in youth or go with the tried and trusted veteran players he has seen get the job done in the past?
What are his concerns about the players who have played their way in to the team? Is there something missing, a long hitter perhaps, a great clinch putter, or is the criteria more psychological than technical? Does the team lack a galvanising force, someone who will keep everyone buoyant in the team room when the going gets tough? All of this is up for grabs over the coming days and weeks in the run up to Hazeltine.
To explore the possibilities ahead we sat down with two of our Standard Life Investment experts ahead of the team announcements.
We asked Dr. Mark Broadie about the technical aspects of the selection process and how data analysis can help the captains make the right decisions.
With Dr. Bob Rotella, we discussed the psychological factors at play behind the scenes.
What they said was illuminating. These conversations took place against a fast moving backdrop, as the final points tables took shape.
Dr. Mark Broadie
SLI: What should the captains be thinking about regarding wildcard selections?
MB: They should, of course, focus on which selections would give the team the best chance of winning. But a look at the selection tables shows how complex the decision could be. The list of possible picks for Davis Love III is really long and he’ll have some tough choices to make.
For example, as we sit here, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler are in the top eight in the Official World Golf Rankings but outside the top eight in The Ryder Cup points list. If the picks were made today, it’s hard to imagine Davis Love III not picking Bubba and Rickie.
Then there’s the issue of injuries. If a player is healthy now, but was injured for part of this season or last, where would they be on The Ryder Cup points list? Jim Furyk is a good example. He has struggled due to injury but is now back and playing brilliantly, shooting an all-time low score of 58 at The Traveler’s Championship. Brooks Koepka is another player who comes to mind in this category.
The other factor to consider is how to handle those players who went to the Olympics, which meant forgoing the chance at gaining more Ryder Cup points. Again, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler, along with Matt Kuchar come in to this category.
SLI: What does the wildcard selection tell us about the captain?
Going out on a limb with a “risky” pick could indicate the captain is secure, self-confident and is willing to take criticism for an unconventional pick that he thinks is best. Picking a Ryder Cup rookie versus a veteran could fall into this category, even though there are examples of veterans who’ve underperformed and rookies who’ve done well.
SLI: How much is the decision emotional and how much is based on data?
Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not important. I would hope the captains would make picks based on all available information, not just the “quantifiable” information.
SLI: What are the key statistical indicators that inform the wildcard decision?
To inform the wildcard decision I’d look at the data from these viewpoints: scoring ability and tournament finishes (properly adjusted to take into account the importance of the tournament, course difficulty, and the strength of field), recent form and consistency in form, birdie rate, and performance under pressure. These are all geared toward attempting to predict future golf performance in The Ryder Cup.
SLI: What role does personality play in adding to the team, or is it about filling gaps in terms of technical attributes (great putters, long drivers etc.)
Personality and other intangibles are hard to quantify, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. There is a risk in thinking that numbers alone should drive decisions.
Making a pick based on a “technical attribute” is dangerous. You want a player who can win a match by scoring the best, and you don’t do that as a one-tool or two-tool player. Here’s an example: your team is facing a crucial putt in a match, would you rather have the best putter on the team from seven feet, or the worst putter on the team from five feet? Based on a mountain of putting data, poor putters from five feet make more than great putters from seven feet, so I’d take the poor putter from closer range. Getting the ball closer to the hole can be more important than putting percentages.
Often Ryder Cup matches are decided by a key putt holed at a certain point in the match; that doesn’t mean you want to overweight putting ability. Why? Firstly, because a player needs to play well from tee to green to be in a position where a putt matters. Secondly, because it is very hard to predict success at longer putts.
In short, I’d take a player who scores better over a player who’s great in just one or two “technical attributes.”
Dr. Bob Rotella
SLI: What makes a good pairing?
First of all, do they like playing together? There is a lot of discussion amongst the members of the team and the captains and assistant captains as to who should be paired with whom. But most important of these is asking the players themselves: who do you want to play with, do your games match up and do your personalities match up?
The other point that gets far less focus in the media is whether their golf balls match up. In foursomes they share a ball and players are obsessed with this question, because it tangibly impacts on their performance.
SLI: Do good pairings need to be good friends?
I don’t think that they need to be the best of friends, they certainly need to be able to get along at least when they are on the golf course. Is it going to be ok with them if their partner doesn’t play well, if he misses an easy shot or putt? It really shows up when a team is struggling and behind in the game. Is your partner going to be encouraging, supportive and positive? You typically have the players tell each other before they play off that 'anything you do today is ok with me, I know you are trying your best, I know you didn’t miss that shot or putt on purpose’.
SLI: The Europeans have won eight of the last 10 Ryder Cups: how does this impact both of the teams psychologically?
Well first of all that’s a great question, because I think it is really about how you respond to that situation more than what’s happened. Both captains will be telling their players that previous success or failure doesn’t have anything to do with this year’s team: it starts all over again - there will be some of that in each locker room, you can bet on that.
The Europeans have certainly gone way beyond wondering if they are capable of winning, or if they are good enough to win. They certainly believe it. Now whether they are going to start putting pressure on themselves that they are supposed to win, and it would be terrible if they lost, I don’t know. I think if you look at the media already - it is an interesting psychological issue – no matter how many times Europe win, it seems like the media presentation is that America is supposed to win, and if America doesn’t win then they messed up, and if Europe wins it’s incredible and the pulled out an upset, which seems ludicrous given how many times they have won in recent years.
SLI: As we near the selection process, what do you think about how the teams are shaping up?
It looks like Europe is going to have a much younger team, with a lot of rookies. The question is, how they are going to use that? They can put pressure on themselves, or they can use it in their favour. My bet is that Darren Clarke is going to say something along the lines of, “we have everything to gain and nothing to lose” and stress the enormous opportunity for the new players to make a mark.
By contrast, the American team are going to go out there and try to say, “We’ve got one heck of a team this year, and we are very prepared and organised and I think it's time for us to turn it around”.
I think the biggest thing for the American team, which is a big point of emphasis, is to really get the American team to relax. American teams of the past have put too much pressure on themselves and if anything they have tried too hard to win.
You read this stuff about the American team not wanting it as badly as Europe, but I think everyone on the American team if anything they want it too badly, and feel a lot of pressure to win. They have almost taken it too seriously and tried too hard, which has probably particularly showed up on the putting greens.
So a lot of this is based on which team is going to really relax on the putting greens and make some putts; this will be an emphasis on both teams for sure. The two captains face slightly differing challenges. The US selection process gives Davis Love III four wildcard picks, compared to Darren Clarke, who has three.
This gives Love greater flexibility to shape his own team, and through the latter part of the season there have been several notable players who have lurked just outside the automatic places. Men like Brandt Snedeker, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Reed would all be attractive additions to Team USA should the need arise. Each has experience in The Ryder Cup, seen by some as a useful asset when the pressure of the event really bites.
Darren Clarke has been presented with a nice problem by the outstanding play of Scottish player Russell Knox, whose victory on the PGA Tour elevated to within the top 20 in the Official World Rankings. Beyond the issue of selections however, another game is in play, which is how each captain responds to previous results. Davis Love III and the PGA of America have established a new way of working, which emerged from a period of consultation. Darren Clarke on the other hand comes to Hazeltine with Europe winning the previous three cups. Does this make it hard for the European captain to innovate and experiment with the role of leader? One thing is for certain and that is that there’s much to look forward to.