The last public image of the U.S. Ryder Cup team was not attractive. During the press conference following the third consecutive defeat in Gleneagles, Scotland two years ago, the tension between some of the players – particularly Phil Mickelson — and Captain Tom Watson bubbled to the surface. Watson was criticized as a remote, authoritarian captain who did not take the time to get to know his players or accept feedback. It was an almost mutinous atmosphere, with players calling for a different approach to the matches.
Rattled by the controversy and a string of defeats at the hands of a European team that – at least on paper – seemed inferior, the PGA of America convened a task force. No one was quite sure how a task force would remedy problems like the epic final day collapse at Medinah in 2012 when the Americans lost a 10-6 lead, but the feeling was it was time to reassess all aspects of the approach to the Cup this side of the Atlantic.
One significant change was the timing of the four captain’s picks, which historically were made after the PGA Championship in mid-August. This year the first three picks will be made after the BMW championship on September 11; the last pick is deferred until September 25 following the conclusion of the Tour Championship. This schedule will preclude a repeat of the awkward result in 2014 when Billy Horschel won the Fed Ex Cup but did not qualify for the team.
The selection of Davis Love as captain of the 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup team reflected an effort to instill more unity and team spirit into the competition. It is ironic that Love was at the helm for the infamous loss at Medinah, where he was criticized for letting a seemingly insurmountable lead slip away. Yet, unlike Watson at Gleneagles who appeared to accept little responsibility and blamed the loss on poor play, Love was gracious in defeat and shouldered the blame. He is a player’s captain, and you can expect to see a lighter, more positive spirit at Hazeltine National when the matches commence on September 30.
Love has the responsibility for course set-up, and this typically affords the home team an advantage as the tract can be tailored to perceived strengths of the team. However, displaying sportsmanship, Love has allowed European captain Darren Clarke some input. Love observed that, since both teams have long hitters, length of the course is not a factor. Expect to see a fair set-up without overly long rough, approximating PGA Championship conditions. Love anticipates some of the par-5 holes to be shortened to provide risk-reward scenarios.
In evaluating his potential captain’s picks and pairings, Love is focusing on two key statistics: strokes gained putting and strokes gained tee to green. “I’m looking at the top 3-4 guys. What are their strengths, what are their weaknesses? How can we match them up? We’ve got a guy that hits a whole lot of greens and a guy that is really high in strokes gained putting, they might make a great pairing for alternate shot.”
Those top guys are likely to be Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker, and Brooks Koepka, who had clinched spots on the team as of August 23. Brandt Snedeker put himself in strong position with his third place finish at the Wyndham Championship. Zach Johnson, Patrick Reed, J.B. Holmes, Bubba Watson, and Matt Kuchar were also battling for the final three automatic spots when points closed on August 28. Veteran Jim Furyk is a likely captain’s pick.
While it is anyone’s guess when Tiger Woods will tee it up again in competition, he will be contributing his insights from seven Ryder Cups as a vice captain at Hazeltine. Love’s approach to picking vice captains is not to choose buddies but to seek critical experience. “Tiger was on the task force, he’s a future captain, so he’s got to be a part of the decision making process,” said Love. He sees Woods as a crucial contributor in strategy and tactics.
Once questioned concerning his commitment to the Ryder Cup, Love emphasized that Woods “is excited about it and puts a lot of thought into it.” Anyone who has won 14 majors knows something about performing under pressure on a big stage.
When the matches begin at Hazeltine, the world will judge whether all the brainstorming at the PGA over the past two years will produce a rejuvenated Team USA. If Love has any say in the matter, the players will at least have more fun.