News & Opinion

Ryder captains face mixed bag of picks

On the one hand, having four captain’s picks for the Ryder Cup team is the best of all possible worlds. You have dozens of players from whom to choose and the luxury of picking hot players coming into the competition.

However, the other edge of the sword is just as sharp. Do you choose experience over youth? Or do you want a fresh face without scar tissue? And if you make the wrong choices and they don’t perform and you lose, then you get shredded.

So, what’s a captain to do? U.S. captain Jim Furyk and European captain Thomas Bjorn are dead in the middle of the swirl that leads up to the Ryder Cup, which will be held at Le Golf National near Paris on Sept. 28-30.

Both have obvious choices, but both also have a handful of players over whom they will struggle equally to make a final decision.

Furyk certainly will pick Tiger Woods, who rose to No. 11 in the U.S. standings after his runner-up finish three weeks ago at the PGA Championship at Bellerive, unless Woods somehow pulls up lame before the matches. Keep in mind that Woods, who missed almost all of 2017 because of back surgery, achieved his points in one year, while the other players accumulated theirs in two years.

Woods does have issues. He likely would play only three matches and almost certainly wouldn’t play foursomes. He has trouble keeping his driver in play, and he and his new putter are uncharacteristically not on speaking terms.

And now that Bryson DeChambeau won Sunday at the Northern Trust, the first of the FedEx Cup playoff events, Furyk will use his second pick on DeChambeau.

After that, Furyk will struggle, especially regarding Phil Mickelson. If he is chosen, it would be his 12th Ryder Cup. But he would come with considerable baggage. Since he tied for fifth at the Wells Fargo Championship in May, Mickelson hasn’t played much significant golf. He missed the cut at the Players Championship and the PGA Championship and shot a third-round, penalty-ridden 81 in the third round of the U.S. Open en route to a T-48.

Since the American brain trust most certainly will look at facts and figures, they can’t ignore that Mickelson is tied with Furyk for having lost the highest number of matches (20) by an American in Ryder Cup history. Woods is third, with 17. And a number they certainly will be aware of is 48, Mickelson’s age. Earlier in the year, he complained of not being able to focus properly, which is why Champions Tour events are three rounds instead of four. If Mickelson loses focus at the Ryder Cup, it costs his team points.

Will Furyk have enough courage not to pick Mickelson? If not him, then who?

Tony Finau has called a lot of attention to himself this summer, finishing fifth at the U.S. Open after being in the final pairing on the last day. He was T-9 in the British Open, T-10 at the WGC-Bridgestone and was runner-up to DeChambeau at the Northern Trust. He hits it forever and can make bunches of birdies. He’d be a perfect four-ball partner for Woods.

The wild card is Xander Schauffele. He was 12th in the final points standings, but he has shown up on the big stages this year. He tied for second at the Players, T-6 at the U.S. Open and T-2 at the British Open. He was Rookie of the Year in 2016-17 and won the Tour Championship. He’s a fresh face who looks fearless and would fit in nicely with the other twenty-somethings on the team.

Bjorn is in a similar state. His obvious pick is Ian Poulter, Mr. European Ryder Cup. Poulter won the Houston Open to qualify for the Masters, in case Bjorn needed justification for using a pick on Poulter.

Bjorn’s biggest problem is Sergio Garcia, who is 23rd on the European points list and 13th on the World points list. This would be Garcia’s ninth consecutive Ryder Cup, and he has a 19-11-7 record, including 9-3-3 in foursomes. If picked, he probably would pair with rookie Jon Rahm, a fellow Spaniard, for at least a couple of matches.

Trouble is, Garcia has had trouble finding his backside with both hands. He missed eight cuts in 15 events on the PGA Tour this year, including all four major championships. He didn’t finish in the top 125 in the FedEx Cup points list.

Another big issue for Bjorn is Henrik Stenson, who is far down both points lists and has played poorly, by his standards. Stenson and Justin Rose have been a formidable pair for Europe, but Bjorn will have trouble justifying a pick for Stenson. That likely won’t stop him.

Then, there is Thomas Pieters, who was the star of the match as a rookie for the Europeans in 2016, going 4-1-0. Pieters has had a disappointing season and is well down both points lists but is trending, which can’t be ignored. He was T-6 at the Scottish Open, T-6 at the PGA Championship and T-9 on Sunday at the Czech Masters.

Then, consider Rafael Cabrera Bello, who was on the 2016 European team, and Paul Casey and Russell Knox, both of whom took up European Tour membership last year to compete for spots on the Ryder Cup team.

Furyk will announce three of his four picks on Sept. 4 after the Dell Technologies Championship, and his final pick on Sept. 10 after the BMW Championship. Europe’s top eight will be finalized after this week’s Made in Denmark tournament, and the captain’s picks will be announced during the next week.

In the meantime, each captain will pore over results and statistics and trends over the next two weeks. But all the numbers and research and hunches and trusting their guts won’t prevent a lot of sleepless nights between now and then.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf