When U.S. Ryder Cup skipper Lanny Wadkins used one of his two captain’s picks on veteran Curtis Strange in 1995, flags were raised immediately, and not in a wave of patriotism. Strange was well past his prime at the time, winless in more than six years and ranked 61st in the world.
John Daly had just won the British Open and could have been an invaluable weapon in the four-ball matches. Scott Hoch was a birdie machine having an excellent year, but Wadkins chose the experienced warhorse with the deeper list of credentials. Even if those achievements had come in the previous decade.
It was a decision that would cost the U.S. dearly in an agonizing loss to the Europeans at Oak Hill. Strange finished the week 0-3, bogeying the final three holes in his singles match to lose to Nick Faldo, 1 up. He wasn’t the only American to struggle down the stretch, but Strange’s shortcomings underscored the danger of leaning on players who have been there and done that, as if past glory has anything to do with current form.
So, experience can be a mirage, yet captains on both sides of the Atlantic continue to overvalue it. Euro skipper Thomas Bjorn earns this year’s headscratcher award for selecting Sergio Garcia over rising English star Matt Wallace, who has won three European Tour events since Garcia’s last top-5 finish, which came in March (“Bjorn adds Ryder royalty to Team Europe,” Sept. 6).
“We need people who can rise to the occasion, who can [lift] their game and make the man standing next to him better,” Bjorn said in defense of the pick. “Sergio does that. He’s the one who stands up and gives a speech to the others and rallies the troops.”
Sounds good, but it smells like teen spirit. I’m not sure how a guy like Wallace can win three big-league tournaments in six months and still sit 23 spots in the Official World Golf Ranking behind a guy who didn’t even qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs, but then, I’m not sure why Bjorn seriously considered Garcia. He’s had a lousy year. And after a blazing start to his Ryder Cup career, when he was virtually unbeatable in alternate-shot matches and annoyed many Americans with his over-the-top displays of joy, Garcia has become quite mediocre.
From 1999 to 2006: 14-4-2.
From 2008 to 2016: 5-7-5.
You need a speechmaker? Ask the BBC to dig up a film of Churchill.
Now Bjorn is no dummy, and it’s easy to see why captains follow their instincts and add veterans to their rosters. Reality? Not all experience is positive experience. Jim Furyk had an 8-15-4 record when Davis Love III tossed him a spot in 2012. Furyk and fellow pick Steve Stricker missed crucial putts in the closing stages at Medinah, and while Dustin Johnson was going 3-0 in his second Ryder Cup, the two vets wound up 1-6.
Perhaps out of necessity, European captains have been more willing to use their picks on young, relatively unproven commodities. Each of the past four Euro squads has included a Ryder Cup rookie among the selections, most notably Thomas Pieters, who went 4-1 two years ago in the U.S. rout at Hazeltine. Darren Clarke’s other two picks – Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood – were a combined 1-6.
You would think Bjorn might notice how the experienced players did nothing for Clarke in 2016, and how Pieters, who is 23rd in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai standings, deserved heavy consideration this time around. Instead, Bjorn went with Henrik Stenson, which is understandable, Ian Poulter, a no-brainer, and Paul Casey, which is a bit of a reach.
All three of those guys spend a majority of their time playing in the United States, holding Euro Tour membership primarily because of the big events in America that are sanctioned by both tours. Pieters has remained true to his home turf, which means a whole bunch to European brass when it comes to Ryder Cup qualification, and what did it get him? A spot in front of the TV at the end of the month.
On the American side, you could make a case that Phil Mickelson didn’t deserve one of Furyk’s selections. Mickelson did win a WGC event earlier this season, however, and for all the yapping about how Tony Finau was more worthy, we’re talking about a guy whose only PGA Tour victory came at an opposite-field event 2½ years ago. Yeah, Finau is the hot guy right now, and he or Xander Schauffele probably will get Furyk’s final pick. Still, the left-hander is one of the 10 or 12 best players of all-time, and he’s certainly not playing that poorly.
Of course, if Mickelson flops and Garcia gets hot, Bjorn looks like a genius and Furyk gets to wear another pair of goat horns. On paper, this is America’s best chance to win overseas since 1993, the last time it actually happened, when U.S. skipper Tom Watson used his two picks on 51-year-old Raymond Floyd and Wadkins, who was about to turn 44.
The two old guys would combine to go 5-2-1, and a quarter-century later, Ryder Cup captains are still trying to turn back the clock. Father Time doesn’t always like it when you mess with him.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org