Twelve players in the 30-man field for the Tour Championship have one last chance to make an impression on U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker, who will announce his six at-large picks early next week.
The six he selects will join six who qualified on points – Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Patrick Cantlay – to form the 12-man team that will take on Team Europe in the 43rd Ryder Cup, Sept. 24-26 at Whistling Straits.
No task for a Ryder Cup captain is more important than rounding out his team with discretionary picks. With the biennial matches being contested in Stricker’s home state, and with Team Europe having won nine of the last 12 meetings, Captain Stricker has got to get it right.
My challenge was to try to identify the six players Stricker will select. Through an intermediary, I asked him for advice. He wasn’t going to tip his hand, of course, but this is what he said:
“He’s got to look at the six guys who are going to make it on points and who pairs well with those six guys … and if they fit Whistling Straits. That would be my advice.”
That doesn’t help a whole lot, but it’s a start. The captain, and others close to him, have dropped a couple other clues along the way.
At the PGA Championship in May, Stricker said he would pay particular attention to those who played well on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island because of its similarities to Whistling Straits.
“You could put a pretty good amount of weight on this week, I feel like, just because I feel like this is really similar to Whistling Straits,” he said. “We’ll look at who played well here this week, for sure, because this is a telltale for Whistling Straits.”
Had Stricker announced his picks at the conclusion of the PGA, there’s little doubt that 51-year-old winner Phil Mickelson would have been on the U.S. team for a 13th time. But Mickelson has had just three other top-25 finishes this year – and only one since the PGA – and Stricker announced Wednesday that Lefty would be joining the team as an assistant captain.
Others who played well at the PGA and are likely being considered by Stricker: Tony Finau (T-8), Scottie Scheffler (T-8), Will Zalatoris (T-8) and Patrick Reed (T-17).
In July, two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, who is close to Stricker and has the captain’s ear, said, “I would suspect he will pick a lot of that group from guys who finish just outside the top six – seven, eight, nine. I don’t have inside information. I’m just guessing that’s what he’ll wind up doing.”
North’s hunch was confirmed by Stricker, who said Monday on the radio show co-hosted by his father-in-law, Dennis Tiziani, “Obviously, we’re going to probably take the guys that are in the seven, eight, nine, 10 range (on the final points list), potentially, anyways.”
Nos. 7-10 are, in order, Finau, Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth and Harris English. It’s hard to imagine Stricker not picking Finau, Schauffele and Spieth. That leaves three spots.
Davis Love III, one of Stricker’s five assistant captains, dropped another clue recently when he said Ryder Cup experience would be especially valued, given that two of the six who qualified on points, Morikawa and Cantlay, are Ryder Cup rookies. DeChambeau and Thomas made their Ryder Cup debuts in 2018.
“The captain has (six) guys that are great players, but not a whole lot of Ryder Cup experience,” Love said. “I think going down the list, obviously, we’re going to pick for pairings but obviously we need to pick some guys that have played before. That veteran leadership is important, or just a couple years of Ryder Cup experience is very valuable.”
The only players among the top 20 in the points who fit that description are No. 11 Patrick Reed (7-3-2 record in three Ryder Cup appearances) and No. 13 Webb Simpson (4-4-1 in three).
Reed, nicknamed Captain America for the passion he brings to the matches, would be a lock for the team if not for a recent hospital stay for pneumonia. Before that, he missed two tournaments with an ankle injury, so his performance this week in Atlanta will weigh heavily.
Stricker left a final clue when he said on the same radio show earlier this week that current form, length off the tee and putting would weigh heavily in his picks.
“You’ve kind of got to go with form and, my feeling, is how these guys fit Whistling Straits,” he said. “It’s a big hitters’ golf course. So, we’ll be looking at that, how guys play on big courses, how far they drive it and how they’re putting it. I want some good putters. Ultimately, the European team has made more putts than we have in the Cups that we’ve lost. So, I’m looking to have good putters. I think putting can take you a long way.”
Armed with that information, these are the six players that I think will be Stricker’s picks (the number before the player’s name is his position on the final Ryder Cup points list):
7. TONY FINAU
Age: Turns 32 on Sept. 14.
World ranking: 9.
Key metrics: Ranks 9th on the PGA Tour in scoring average (69.915), 14th strokes gained-tee to green (1.111), 16th strokes gained-total (1.266), 23rd birdie average (4.19), 31st driving distance (305.5), 32nd strokes gained-approach the green (.465), 77th strokes gained-putting (.155).
Checks these boxes: Power. Personality. Familiarity with Whistling Straits. Ryder Cup experience.
Analysis: Finau got bumped from the last automatic spot on the U.S. team by Cantlay in the final week of qualifying. His playoff victory over Cameron Smith in The Northern Trust, one month before the Ryder Cup, could not have come at a better time. His length will be an asset at Whistling Straits, where he finished T-10 at the 2015 PGA Championship. Finau went 1-1 with Koepka at the 2018 Ryder Cup and his easygoing nature will allow Stricker to pair him with almost anyone on the U.S. squad.
8. XANDER SCHAUFFELE
World ranking: 5.
Key metrics: Ranks 5th strokes gained-total (1.462), 14th scoring average (69.952), 15th birdie average (4.26), 16th strokes gained-approach the green (.614), 17th strokes gained-tee to green (1.011), 20th strokes gained-putting (.451), 22nd driving distance (307.5).
Checks these boxes: Power. Consistency. Personality. Versatility.
Analysis: One doesn’t necessarily think of Schauffele as a bomber, but he has plus-power. He is one of the most well-rounded players on the PGA Tour, as the strokes gained categories bear out, and does not have a glaring weakness in his game. Schauffele would pair well with Morikawa or Cantlay. He missed the cut at Kiawah Island, but has finished out of the top 25 only four other times this year and won the gold medal at the Olympic Games.
9. JORDAN SPIETH
World ranking: 14.
Key metrics: Ranks 11th birdie average (4.30), 21st scoring average (70.067), 22nd strokes gained-total (1.199), 30th strokes gained-putting (.418), 27th strokes gained-tee to green (.472), 67th driving distance (299.5).
Checks these boxes: Pressure player. Familiarity with Whistling Straits. Ryder Cup experience.
Analysis: He’s made a Stricker-like comeback from the depths of a slump and though he has yet to return to his peak form of a few years ago, he’s close. He leads the PGA Tour with nine top-10s this season. Spieth finished runner-up to Jason Day in the 2015 PGA at the Straits, shooting 17-under 271, so there’s that. He went 4-1-2 with Reed in the 2014 and ’16 Ryder Cups but asked out of that partnership, then went 3-1 with Thomas in Paris in 2018.
10. HARRIS ENGLISH
World ranking: 11.
Key metrics: Ranks 9th in birdie average (4.31), 10th strokes gained-putting (.569), 22nd scoring average (70.089), 28th strokes gained-total (1.075), 53rd strokes gained-tee to green (.506), 70th driving distance (299.3), 85th strokes gained-approach the green (.134).
Checks these boxes: Putting. Consistency. Current form. Personality.
Analysis: Though English is not a bomber, he is one of the Tour’s best putters and consequently makes a lot of birdies, which makes him a good four-ball partner. He has never made a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team, so inexperience is a factor. But could Stricker leave a player off the team who is ranked 11th in the world, finished 10th in Ryder Cup points, has won twice this year and has more top-15 finishes (6) than missed cuts (3)? The short answer: no.
11. PATRICK REED
World ranking: 19.
Key metrics: Ranks 5th strokes gained-putting (.677), 7th strokes gained-total (1.443), 16th scoring average (70.004), 32nd birdie average (4.07), 36th strokes gained-tee to green (.766), 43rd strokes gained-approach the green (.380), 151st driving distance (291.5),
Checks these boxes: Ryder Cup record. Putting. Passion.
Analysis: Yes, there are flaws with this pick. Reed is in the bottom 25% of the Tour in driving distance and rubs some people the wrong way, especially when it comes to his documented looseness with the Rules of Golf. There’s a reason Spieth asked out of their successful partnership. But he is a proven Ryder Cup winner, has a 3-0 singles record and would fire up the partisan crowds at Whistling Straits. Only a terrible performance in Atlanta, or ongoing health concerns, would prevent Stricker from picking him.
13. WEBB SIMPSON
World ranking: 20.
Key metrics: Ranks 8th birdie average (4.34), 8th scoring average (69.901), 18th strokes gained-total (1.253), 22nd strokes gained-putting (.435), 31st strokes gained-tee to green (.818), 39th strokes gained-approach the green (.393), 136th driving distance (292.5),
Checks these boxes: Ryder Cup experience. Veteran leadership. Consistency. Personality.
Analysis: Simpson would be a safe pick to round out the team. As the second-oldest player behind only Johnson, he would add the veteran leadership and Ryder Cup experience that Stricker covets. He also was a member of three victorious U.S. Presidents Cup teams. Simpson is not long off the tee but does everything else well, as evidenced by his top-10 ranking in birdie average and scoring average. He has 13 top-15 finishes in his last 21 starts.
Here are eight other players Stricker could be considering:
12. Daniel Berger. Played on the victorious 2017 Presidents Cup team that Stricker captained. Missed the cut at the 2015 PGA at the Straits and finished T-75 earlier this year at Kiawah Island.
14. Scottie Scheffler. Young (25), talented and a fearless competitor, but lacks experience and has yet to win on the PGA Tour. Future Ryder Cup mainstay.
15. Jason Kokrak. Could he be a surprise pick? He ranks fourth in strokes gained-putting and 21st in driving distance (307.9), satisfying two of Stricker’s most important criteria.
16. Sam Burns. In 81 career starts, he’s racked up 13 top-10 finishes, including a victory in the Valspar Championship in May. Bright future, but he’s not quite ready yet.
17. Billy Horschel. Fiercely competitive, and plays well on big courses (T-25 at 2015 PGA, T-23 at Kiawah Island) despite ranking 118th in driving distance. On-course temperament can be off-putting.
18. Kevin Kisner. He is 16-5-1 at the WGC-Match Play and was 2-0-2 at the 2017 Presidents Cup. Stricker loves Kisner’s tenacity, but he ranks 169th in driving distance, missed the cut at the Straits in 2015 and shot 77-77 at Kiawah Island.
22. Will Zalatoris. Impressed many with his poise and runner-up finish at the Masters in April, but he is a Tour rookie with just 25 career starts. He’ll play on many U.S. Ryder Cup teams, but not this one.
29. Stewart Cink. At 48, he still has the length (305.9 average) to keep up with the kids. He has played on nine total Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup teams, but none since 2010. This would be a reach.