Things have been popping already at the Ryder Cup.
On Wednesday, Phil Mickelson’s must-see press conference didn’t disappoint, as he managed to create controversy by bringing up the 2004 event in which he was paired with Tiger Woods to disastrous results. (Phil has apologized for those comments already, by the way.) In 2014, Phil’s pre-Ryder Cup presser featured a joke about ongoing litigation between European Tour members. That was trumped by his post-Ryder Cup press conference in which he raked captain Tom Watson over the coals while Watson was sitting right next to him. It was glorious, and Watson probably deserved a lot of it, too.
That exchange, and the disastrous Watson captaincy, led to the formation of the Ryder Cup task force, and the more player-inclusive decision-making model, spearheaded by Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and others, that the United States team hopes will build success in the event. That said, imagine if they don’t win after all this.
And on the European side, Masters champ Danny Willett is dealing with a bit of a controversy brought on by his own brother Peter’s piece about American fans:
— Ryan Lavner (@RyanLavnerGC) September 28, 2016
So we’re off and running! Again, this event is unique in that it gives golfers a chance to be part of a team, and they tend to relish that opportunity, embracing the rowdy fan atmosphere and match-play format to create a genuinely compelling spectacle. (And normally Europe wins.)
Keeping that in mind, let’s run down the list of players competing this weekend, ranked from No. 24 to No. 1. Criteria used include relatively recent form, overall year, general talent level, Ryder Cup history (as it really is different golf than the week in/week out events, both in format and pressure), and whatever personal biases are always present in these sort of rankings. (When mentioned, previous Ryder Cup records are in Win-Loss-Tie format, which is as much to help me remember as it is to help you.)
It’s also important to realize that all these guys are in the top 50 or so in the world, and all of them are capable of playing some awesome golf over three days.
24. Matthew Fitzpatrick (EUR)
Fitzpatrick is ranked 44th in the world, and at 22 is the youngest player on either team.
23. Thomas Pieters (EUR)
Pieters is filling the role of “big-hitting Belgian” previously played by Nicolas Colsearts in 2012; it didn’t go that well for Colsearts back then, but Pieters is in good form of late. (Though the events at which he’s played well haven’t had the strongest fields.) Ranked 42nd in the world.
22. Chris Wood (EUR)
The large Englishman hasn’t played that well lately, and it’s possible he’s nursing a lingering injury.
21. Zach Johnson (USA)
The American is the first player on this list to have previous Ryder Cup experience and indeed, he has a solid record for an American at 6-6-2. It’s his fifth Ryder Cup, but he wasn’t on the victorious 2008 team, meaning he’s never played on a winning side. He qualified for the team mostly thanks to his win at the 2015 British Open.
This speaks to an interesting issue with the qualification process. American Ryder Cup points were earned in every tournament in 2016, but only earned in majors in 2015, so players with good 2015 major performances get a leg up. (2015 World Golf Championship events and The Players Championship also count for half-points.) Should a performance 14 months ago really count that much towards an event so far in the future?
20. Rafa Cabrera-Bello (EUR)
The Spaniard is a solid player, and made a run to the WGC-Match Play semifinals earlier this year. He’s ranked 30th in the world. Very possible that he pairs with Sergio Garcia, which could be a streaky good duo.
19. Brandt Snedeker (USA)
Sneds is on a decent run of form, but he hasn’t had that great of a season. When his putter is on, though, he’s one of the best in the game, making him a solid alternate-shot player. Went 1-2 in his only previous Ryder Cup appearance in 2012.
18. Jimmy Walker (USA)
Walker made the team by virtue of winning the PGA Championship after a fairly middling year to that point; he’d dropped down to 49th in the world prior to his major win. He then missed two more cuts before finishing third at the Deutsche Bank and T13 at the BMW, and he’s also a deceptively big hitter.
17. Danny Willett (EUR)
Willett is ranked fairly low here, and most of it stems from uncertainty as to how he’ll react in the wake of his brother’s rant. He’s already a rookie, and despite winning the Masters earlier this year, and being a very good player, he’ll have a target on his back from the fans all week. That’s actually unfortunate, as it really had nothing to do with him at all, but that’s just how it is. Expect him to be paired with Lee Westwood to form one of Europe’s workhorse teams.
16. Brooks Koepka (USA)
The big-hitting rookie tailed off a bit in the FedEx Cup playoffs, missing out on the Tour Championship. He’s also put a new driver in play this week, switching from Nike to TaylorMade. That’s an interesting decision, to be sure. Came up playing in Europe, so he’s likely familiar with the men on both rosters. Has the length to succeed at Hazeltine if he’s on form.
15. Martin Kaymer (EUR)
The German veteran is ranked just 48th in the world at the moment, but has a 4-3-3 record in his three Ryder Cup appearances, including sinking the clinching putt in 2012 to defeat Steve Stricker and complete Europe’s famous Sunday comeback. Was a captain’s pick this year as Darren Clarke looked to add veteran complements to his 6 rookie qualifiers.
14. Rickie Fowler (USA)
Fowler has played in two Ryder Cups, 2010 and 2014, so this is his first one at home. He’s also never won a match. And he’s not really playing that well right now, having failed to qualify for both the team (he was one of Davis Love’s original three captain’s picks) and the Tour Championship (meaning he’s had essentially three weeks off since the BMW ended.)
But the event clearly means a lot to Fowler. He may have qualified for the team on points had he not chosen to play in the Olympics, and he was part of the task force in the wake of the 2014 debacle. Plus, despite not winning a match, he did birdie the final four holes of his 2010 singles match to force a halve, keeping American hopes alive. (Until Hunter Mahan forgot how to chip.)
He has to be due, right? Based on the practice round groupings, look for Fowler to be paired with Phil.
13. J.B. Holmes (USA)
Big-hitting Holmes was part of the victorious 2008 squad, going 2-0-1, and then never made the team until he was selected by Davis Love this year. His game likely suits the long setup, and if he can play the par 5s well, he might be a force.
12. Andy Sullivan (EUR)
Sullivan is a bulldog, both in stature and in mentality. He’s a rookie, and ranked just 50th in the world, and not really playing that well of late, so this is solely a hunch based on the fact that he looks just like the kind of guy who would dominate the American team in a Ryder Cup. Seriously, look at that guy, and tell me you can’t see him fist-pumping after he rolls in a ridiculous 20-footer to win a hole on Sunday.
11. Matt Kuchar (USA)
Kuchar is a nice guy, easy to play with, and has a solid all-around game. This is his fourth Ryder Cup appearance in a row, and he’s 4-5-2 over his prior three. Might be playing some with Dustin Johnson this week. This ranking might be too high, frankly. But as a complement to Johnson, he could be valuable.
10. Henrik Stenson (EUR)
Stenson is a fabulous player, as evidenced by his historically good performance this summer at Troon, where he outdueled Phil Mickelson to capture the Open Championship. But he’s reportedly dealing with some nagging injuries, and it’s tough to guess how he’ll perform this week. If he’s healthy and on his game, though, this is far too low, as he’s the fifth-ranked player in the world for a reason. Went 3-1-0 in the 2014 destruction of the USA.
9. Lee Westwood (EUR)
Westwood was another veteran selection, and he’s now playing his tenth Ryder Cup, which is a fantastic accomplishment that would get more attention if Phil Mickelson weren’t playing his eleventh. Westwood has only secured less than two points for Europe one time, and that was in Europe’s 2008 loss. As mentioned, he’ll likely pair with Willett, and if Willett’s head is right, that could mean trouble.
As an aside, especially with alternate shot, I tend to favor pairings made up of two British or Irish golfers, as that’s a format they’re much more comfortable with, as it’s a very common thing there for weekend golfers. In the United States, alternate shot is almost never played, and though that might be a very, very small edge, it’s still a potential edge.
8. Ryan Moore (USA)
That’s right! He’s here! The final pick for the American team, at the expense of Bubba Watson, Moore makes his first Ryder Cup appearance on the heels of his Tour Championship showdown with Rory McIlroy. He’s playing some very high-level golf, and is coming off the best season of his career, with the meat of that success coming over the last two months. He’s not a very long player, which could pose a few issues at Hazeltine, but he’s very straight, and an excellent putter, which should both be assets this weekend.
He might be a bit high here, but then I thought that about the Tour Championship ranking too, when I had him seventh, and he finished in a tie for second.
7. Phil Mickelson (USA)
As mentioned, Phil is playing in his 11th Ryder Cup, and he’s qualified for each and every one. He’s also going to be under intense scrutiny, more than even normal Phil scrutiny, after he essentially took control of the Ryder Cup process. This is as much his team as it is Davis Love’s, or any of the vice-captains. He’s also had zero reservations talking to the media about the ongoing process, hinting that the team had mostly been picked before even the original round of captain’s picks, discussing Tiger’s involvement with strategy, and more. Phil wanted it this way, and he’s gotten it, and if they win he’ll get a bigger share of the credit. But if they lose… man.
Also, the Ryder Cup and the majors are just about all Phil cares about anymore, with good reason. He gets up for these events like nothing else. Plus, with match play, his recent penchant for catastrophic holes that take him out of the running in stroke play events won’t be as penal, as here it just counts for a loss of hole. (Or, in a four-ball match, it just means his partner has to play well.) It’s a long course, but fairly open with forgiving rough, another way it’s been set up to favor Phil’s preferred style of play. Will it pay off?
6. Patrick Reed (USA)
Reed was a bright spot in 2014, showing signs of a fiery, fearless international player. The sort of thing that tends to rub people the wrong way when playing regular events becomes something everyone can get behind in a team competition. (Well, unless you’re a European player. Or one of the fans he famously shushed.)
Reed walked into a team meeting Sunday and told Love that he's playing all 5 matches, and he's only playing with Spieth. Not making this up.
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) September 27, 2016
Reed wants it badly, and will likely be paired again with Jordan Spieth. If he can rekindle the magic, it’ll at the very least be great television.
5. Sergio Garcia (EUR)
Sergio has played in seven Ryder Cups, this being his eighth. He’s still surprisingly young at 36; his first Ryder Cup was back in 1999. He’s never won an actual major, but he’s been clutch in plenty of these events, and he’ll likely continue to do so. Might be a bit high here, but then again he’s 18-9-5 in the Ryder Cup, which is very, very good.
4. Justin Rose (EUR)
Rose has played in three Ryder Cups: 2008, 2012, and 2014, and has picked up 3, 3, and 4 points respectively. That’s a fantastic record. He won the Olympic gold medal earlier this year, and as the 11th-ranked player in the world, is going to be a very key figure for Europe.
3. Jordan Spieth (USA)
Listen, he hasn’t had a great year by his own lofty standards. Coming down from the historic 2015, and having basically blown the Masters back in April, Spieth could use a solid finish to his year. This gives him a real opportunity to finish strong. He’ll likely be paired with Patrick Reed, and they’re going to be counted on to do a lot of the heavy lifting for the American side.
2. Dustin Johnson (USA)
Listen, it’s a very long golf course. Dustin Johnson is very long. Stupid long. He’ll be firing away all week, and he’s also been dialed in around the greens. Was in command of the Tour Championship this past week as well, until an uncharacteristic final round 73 cost him both the tournament and the $10 million FedEx Cup. It’s seemingly not bothering him at all:
DJ was asked if having a short memory was a strength of his:
DJ: "Or no memory."
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) September 29, 2016
Speculating based on practice round play, he’ll be paired with Kuchar, though that could be fluid, especially if he plays all five possible matches. Kuchar likely won’t be out there five times. It’d be fun to see him play with Koepka, just for the ProTracer shots alone.
1. Rory McIlroy (EUR)
Listen, he’s playing great, putting great, and he loves the Ryder Cup. There’s no other choice for number one. He’s also already firing at the pins:
@McIlroyRory …… ….
That’s a hole out from the fairway. Hopefully, he gets it out of the way now, for the sake of the American team.
So, having gone through all that, how’s it look? The European side stacks up evenly near the top, with the American team boasting some better depth overall. But given the format of the event, depth isn’t likely to matter too much until the singles matches on Sunday, as that’s the only round in which all twelve players for each team play.
Also Europe basically always wins.
But, having said that, the Americans finally picked the team that made sense, and if anything they’ve said about the feeling in the team room and how excited they’ve been to be included in some of the strategy is true (and they’ve said a lot of it) then maybe they might be able to turn it around this year.
USA 15, Europe 13