Well, we needed something to happen after the controversial decisions made by US captain Zach Johnson a week ago, and Ryder Cup fans again got in a tizzy after Luke Donald made his six wild-card picks on Monday.
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Rewind a few days, and Johnson was at pains to justify his decision to include Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Sam Burns, all three beating Keegan Bradley, Cameron Young, Tony Finau and Lucas Glover to the call.
It was easy to see why the likes of Collin Morikawa – “he is a very strong fit for Marco Simone and what we feel the course will demand,” – and five-time major champ Koepka – “I know his buddies want him on the team,” – were chosen, but the rest may need a touch more evidence.
Koepka is the only non-PGA Tour player making the away team, and perhaps set the way for Johnson’s thoughts.
“When it came to BK, his experience, his temperament, the way he goes about his work, his passion for the Ryder Cup—all spoke volumes,” Johnson said. “… He and I have had communications a lot over the last few months, very candid discussions, when he started to make his way onto this team. He earned his way onto this team when you get down to the pennies and dollars of it. It was a pretty easy pick.”
With a record of 6.5 points from 12 matches, the Masters runner-up and PGA Championship winner makes an awful lot of sense, particularly for the Marco Simone course that rewards strong drivers of the ball. In that regard, perhaps Bryson DeChambeau should have been picked as a natural team-mate.
The jumping to LIV has no argument given his former foe, now friend, Koepka did the same, and he has found form again since ditching the desire to be the Incredible Hulk, shooting rounds of 63 and 61 to win at Greenbrier.
On the odd foray to the majors over the past two years, BDC finished eighth at St. Andrews, fourth at Oak Hill and 20th at the LACC, enough to recognise his ability to play big-time. Of course, his power off the tee on a course proven to reward aggression would have been the perfect partner for the more talented iron players.
Cameron Young – seventh at The Masters, 32nd at the US Open and eighth at The Open – and Keegan Bradley – winner at the Travelers and two top-30 finishes in the ’23 majors – were both ranked higher than three of the chosen few, with the most noteworthy decisions surrounding the inclusion of JT and Burns.
Perhaps beating Young by a distance at the WGC World Match Play was the factor that took Burns over the line, or it could have been his friendship with world number one Scottie Scheffler, but his record in Europe reads a best of 18th and 19th in the Scottish Open, far less appealing than Young’s runner-up and eighth in just three starts, those highlights all at major level.
Bradley, with a similar record to Burns on the DPWT, is the type of nervous, emotional character that a visiting team needs.
“I’m 37 years old… I’ve still got a lot to show the captain. I would love to go to Rome and be a part of that team,” he said after the Travelers win, his second PGA Tour victory in 17 starts. And he hinted strongly to Johnson after qualifying for the Tour Championship last month.
“I think about the Ryder Cup every second I’m awake, basically,” he said.“My biggest thing right now is trying not to think about it while I’m playing because it’s that important to me.”
Sadly, emotional pleading isn’t enough, and the win, the drive, and the Ryder Cup record of 4-3-0 lost out to three players ranked just below him.
Rickie Fowler was so-so for me.
Despite his obvious popularity, the popular 34-year-old has a moderate record of three wins and seven losses from 15 matches. He also did no more than Bradley or Lucas Glover in the run-in, the latter winning back-to-back at the Wyndham and St. Jude. With a win at the 2009 US Open in the bank, he started to convince as a better candidate than a few of the lucky ones, although there was rarely a doubt that the team would include Justin Thomas.
Fact – JT is 6-2-1 at the Ryder Cup. Fact – JT has two PGA Championships behind him, the last one in May 2022. Fact – JT has an excellent overall Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup record. Fact – 2023 has been awful.
Many players have found those jumping to LIV have paved the way up the official world rankings, but for JT, the move has been in a startling wrong direction.
Ranked in eighth place at the start of the year, five missed-cuts (including at three majors) have seen him slide down to a current 25th, with only three top-10 finishes saving a 19-event season.
If there was anyone for which history overcame current form, it’s the 30-year-old winner of 15 PGA Tour events, but balancing the good against the (very) bad was surely a difficult decision for Johnson.
Let’s take a look at the bare stats for the season.
Although top 40 in distance off the tee, JT hasn’t a clue where it is going, ranking 138th in driving approach. From there he ranks 129th for greens-in-regulation, 138th for proximity to the pin, 111th for scrambling and 116th in sand saves.
Ah, maybe the flat stick is saving him? Putts per round – 96th. Strokes-gained-putting? 144th.
It looks worse than it is, and JT saved some face when performing well at the Travelers (ranked top three for approaches, tee-to-green and around-the green) and again last time out at the Wyndham, when he knew exactly what a place at the FedEx play-offs meant.
A heart-breaking final hole lip-out birdie chip was the difference between making the final 70 and praying for something good and perhaps it was that effort that persuaded Johnson to give him the nod.
The captain seemed to have no doubts. “He has without question been the heart and soul of Team USA at Ryder Cups, our emotional leader. In my mind, he was born for this. You just don’t leave JT at home.”
And that seems to be the theme of Johnson’s play – historic or otherwise, there is a group of players that he was never going to leave behind.
Some make sense, I guess.
He said of Fowler, “My boy Rick: Great 2023. Obviously that win, a really good US Open out in LA, pretty much a model of consistency this year through and through. Stats showed that. Also extremely flexible as far as pairings, and I would say formats. He can move around there a little bit. Those that know him or at least been around him, he makes every team room better. That’s Rick.”
Of Burns, he also discussed the nature of ‘team.’ “Guys want to be around him. Guys want to play with him.”
Contrast that with The Guardian’s small but significant aside that Fred Couples (one of several thousand vice-captains) calling the unfortunate Bradley, “not being tight” with other team-mates, and the logic becomes clear.
Back to JT. It’s almost a given that if Jordan Spieth is in, so must JT. And Jordan most definitely is, being called a “great match play player……….a lot of heart, a lot of spirit……one of our stalwarts on Team USA,” by his lead.
The last time that Europe hosted the Ryder Cup – at tricky Le Golf National, in 2018 – the life-long friends combined to beat Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton, Ian Poulter and Jon Rahm, and Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy. Thomas then went on to defeat McIlroy in the first Sunday singles match.
Given Europe won for the sixth consecutive time when hosting – this time 17.5-10.5 – Thomas’s performance was eye-catching to say the least. Whilst he couldn’t back that up at Whistling Straits in 2021, winning one foursomes (against Viktor Hovland and Bernd Wiesberger) an overall record of 6-2-1 and a President’s Cup record of 6-2-2 makes him an obvious, if arguable selection.
Social media went a bit crackers soon after.
There have been plenty of positives, though.
Golf legend and former Ryder Cup captain, Lee Trevino, was fully behind the pick.
“He’s won two PGA’s, he’s won 13 tournaments, and he’s got experience. If you look at his record, it’s a winning record. I think this had a lot to do with it. I don’t think it had anything to do with personality.”
It’s doubtful we will get a similar backlash to that which faced Tom Watson in 2014. After leaving out star player Phil Mickelson from both Saturday pairs games, Lefty went to town on his captain’s methods, referring to straying from Paul Azinger’s 2008 ‘tactics’. However, Johnson has made a choice that clearly revolves around a planned set of pairings – if they fail to spark, I’m not sure that some of his team’s individual form is enough to prove anything but a slight inconvenience.
Johnson is relying on his big guns to bring it to the table, but as can seen below, they really need to shine. On foreign soil, with none having a look at any of the three Italian Opens held here (as JT did in France) this could be dangerous. Or brilliant.
|PLAYER||RYDER CUP (WON-LOST-TIE)||2023 MAJORS (MASTERS/PGA/US OPEN/OPEN)||CAREER MAJORS WON|
I’ll be back with my view on Team Europe in the next couple of days.