News & Opinion

Stricker points Ryder Cup in new direction

Much has changed with the PGA of America’s approach to the Ryder Cup since the organization appointed a task force to create a winning formula. Not so long ago, the PGA’s public-relations department loved to play a cat-and-mouse game with the golf media regarding the announcement of Ryder Cup captains. Now, the future order of captains is highly predictable.

The 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits was Steve Stricker’s to lose. Stricker, a Wisconsin native, already had geography on his side, with the Ryder Cup being played in his home state. After a dominant performance by the U.S. under Stricker’s captainship during the recent Presidents Cup at Liberty National, he is without a doubt the PGA’s choice (“Next generation emerges to lead U.S.,” Oct. 2, http://bit.ly/2xVsX9a).

This is a monumental shift from the past, considering that Stricker will become the first U.S. Ryder Cup captain not to have won a major championship. I remember raising this point with Stricker a few years ago. How important is it to be a major champion when it comes to being a Ryder Cup captain?

“That’s interesting. I never looked at it that way,” said Stricker, who played on the 2008, ’10 and ’12 Ryder Cup teams, for captains Paul Azinger, Corey Pavin and Davis Love III, respectively. “I looked at them as former Ryder Cup players, not major champions.

“The Ryder Cup is much different than a major, so being a major champion shouldn’t be a factor. Although, Phil [Mickelson] and Tiger [Woods] tell me that I will never be a Ryder Cup captain, since I haven’t won a major,” Stricker said with a laugh.

He will change that notion in 2020. 

The PGA has come a long way, considering that for many years only PGA champions were named as Ryder Cup captains. That bias changed in 1963, when Arnold Palmer led the Americans to a 23-9 victory at the original site of the Atlanta Athletic Club. Stricker will break another mold in a “major” way.

Woods won five times in 2013, and it appeared as if he would be playing on Ryder Cup teams well into the next decade. However, in recent years Woods, who will turn 42 in December, has endured more injuries and some painful life lessons. By his own admission, he might never compete again, and certainly not at a level that would warrant a Ryder Cup roster spot. He has embraced being part of team golf by accepting positions as an assistant captain at last year’s Ryder Cup and this year’s Presidents Cup. Woods appears to be enjoying the team environment, and the players have embraced him.

You can bet that Woods will be an assistant captain for Stricker at Whistling Straits. Woods might even be the next Presidents Cup captain, for 2019 at Royal Melbourne in Australia. At this point, he appears destined to be the 2022 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, in Rome.       

Then there’s Phil Mickelson, who has proclaimed that he would love to be the Ryder Cup captain at Bethpage in 2024. This is the easiest pick of all future captains. New York loves Mickelson, and vice versa. At 47, he might have played in his final Ryder Cup. Even if he were to make Jim Furyk’s 2018 team in Paris, Mickelson still would have the ’20 Ryder Cup and a couple of Presidents Cups to build experience as an assistant captain.

The most valuable part of the Presidents Cup might be the experience that somebody such as Stricker can gain before becoming a Ryder Cup captain. It used to be that the PGA of America never would consider a Presidents Cup captain as a Ryder Cup choice. Fred Couples and Hale Irwin are good examples. Even that mindset has changed, given the new love affair between the PGA and the Tour, which is a good development for all U.S. teams.

The system in place today is better for grooming and choosing future captains, and the overall future of U.S. team competition looks extremely bright. By his own admission, Stricker needed only to get out of the way and let his team play during last week’s 19-11 rout against the Internationals at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, N.J. Much has been made of pairings, pods and team chemistry in recent years. Some critics point to failures in those areas as reasons why the U.S. has won only three of the past 11 Ryder Cups.

The late Claude Harmon, the 1948 Masters champion, once told me, “You can’t make mules into race horses. All you can do is try to create racing mules.” The rosters of some recent Ryder Cup teams look like racing mules compared with the thoroughbreds of the 2017 Presidents Cup team.

The integration of Americans such as Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Kevin Kisner with young talent such as Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed forms the nucleus of future U.S. teams. All that Furyk, Stricker, Woods and Mickelson need to do is get out of the way and let those guys play.

Ted Bishop, who owns and operates The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind., and is the author of “Unfriended,” was president of the PGA of America in 2013-14. Email: tedbishop38pga@aol.com; Twitter: @tedbishop38pga