Column: The Ryder Cup is more about popularity than performance with its six captain's picks


ATLANTA (AP) — Zach Johnson has a week to measure personalities, potential pairings and how statistics mesh with Marco Simone. He will talk it over with five vice captains and the six Americans who already qualified for the Ryder Cup team in Rome.

And then he will announce Aug. 29 which six players get the coveted captain's picks.

Sound complicated? It wouldn't be with only two choices. That's the way it was when this business of captain's picks began for the U.S. team in 1989, and it's the way it should be now.

Instead, the Ryder Cup selection system has gotten out of hand, adding another layer of perceived favoritism in a sport that prides itself on earning what you get.

Now there will be questions about Justin Thomas, a spark for the U.S. team in the last two Ryder Cups who didn't make the FedEx Cup playoffs this year. Using one of two picks on Thomas (at No. 16 in the standings) would have the appearance of strengthening the team. Making him one of six puts greater emphasis on who got left out and why.

If performance matters, the U.S. team should go back to 10 qualifiers and two captain's picks. That probably would make Johnson's choices easier, not harder, except for making phone calls to the players who don't get picked. Getting left out at No. 11 is one thing. But No. 7?

Brooks Koepka is No. 7. He was squeezed out of the automatic six on Sunday when Max Homa and Xander Schauffele passed him on the final day of qualifying.

Koepka would seem to be a lock as the PGA champion and Masters runner-up (points from those two majors alone would have put him at No. 7). Now playing for LIV Golf, he earned 9,421 points in 10 events and finished 29 points behind Schauffele, who had 26 counting events.

His association with Saudi-funded LIV Golf is enough for speculation when it probably shouldn't be.

Form matters, sure, except the Ryder Cup starts 31 days after the picks are made. Bryson DeChambeau won two FedEx Cup events in 2018 and a month later went 0-3 in France.

Match play, much less the Ryder Cup, is fickle.

Besides, if the Americans have an abundance of riches when it comes to filling out the team, should it really matter who they send over to Rome? They have lost in Europe the last three decades whether they had two picks or four. And now they have six.

“We forget the real reason we had picks in the first place,” said Curtis Strange, a former Ryder Cup captain, player and one-time captain's pick.

Europe first had captain's picks in 1985, won the next two Ryder Cups and then the Americans decided they should get picks. They had two picks for each of the next nine Ryder Cups (and went 3-5-1 as the pendulum swung in European favor).

That all changed with Captain America — Paul Azinger, who earned the moniker as an actual captain and for doing more than any task force in helping the U.S. team.

Azinger wanted four picks in 2008, much of that geared around his concept of a “pod” system in which each of three groups chose the pick (Steve Stricker technically was a pick but effectively was a lock for that team).

Azinger deserves credit not for doubling the picks, but for identifying the antiquated points system the PGA of America was using. Points were awarded only for finishing in the top 10, which didn't account for the influx of international players. Azinger wanted it to be about PGA Tour money earned over two years.

He essentially got PGA of America officials to copy the PGA Tour's system for the Presidents Cup without them realizing it. But it was the right way to go.

The four picks stayed for the next six Ryder Cup matches, except for 2014 when Tom Watson reduced the number of picks to three.

And then last time it went up to six picks. The 2021 matches at Whistling Straits were postponed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and it created uncertainty with schedules. Now the six picks are here to stay.

Did it matter last time? Not really. Stricker used four of his picks on Nos. 7 through 10 in the standings — Tony Finau, Schauffele, Jordan Spieth and Harris English. Then, he took Daniel Berger (No. 12) and Scottie Scheffler (No. 14).

It likely would have worked out the same way with two picks, only it would have felt like players were competing for 10 spots and had earned it. No one wants a phone call. And players who are picks are always under more scrutiny.

That's what led Padraig Harrington to want only three picks for the 2021 matches.

“Picks only complicate it,” he said in an interview with RTE in Ireland. “You want situations where you've got guys who qualify, then a limited number of picks to strengthen the team. You can cause dissension in the team if someone doesn't get picked if the rest of the team thinks they should have been.

"The less picks you have ... you have less doubt in your mind about the picks, and that brings less doubt to the team.”

It didn't work out for Europe, which suffered its worst loss ever (19-9) at Whistling Straits. But that wasn't about the picks. That was about an aging European team with virtually no crowd support because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, along with a young U.S. team in which everyone was in full form. That's rare.

Luke Donald now has six picks for Europe this year. This is a team in transition and he needs experience. As it stands now, three picks would get him Matt Fitzpatrick, Shane Lowry and Justin Rose. The others should play their way onto the team with scores on the card, not a phone call from the captain.

Not that it matters. The Ryder Cup is all about second-guessing the losing team. That much will never change.


AP golf: