What the Keegan Bradley Ryder Cup surprise could mean big picture

Zach Johnson, Captain of Team United States talks to Stewart Cink, Vice Captain of Team United States on the 11th hole during the Friday morning foursomes matches of the 2023 Ryder Cup

U.S. captain Zach Johnson and vice-captain Stewart Cink at the 2023 Ryder Cup.

getty images

Captain’s picks are always a hot topic in the run-up to Ryder Cups. In the prelude to the 2025 edition, though, most of the drama to this point has revolved around the captain pick — as in, who would lead the U.S. side at beefy Bethpage Black, a decision that historically has been announced in February of the year preceding the matches, but for the ’25 event wasn’t publicized until two days ago.

As you’re likely aware by now, Keegan Bradley got the nod, but only because Tiger Woods, who had been offered the post last year, declined. Woods took months to ruminate over whether he had the time and energy to fully dedicate himself to the task. He was having a hard time saying no but an even harder time saying yes; in late May he finally came to peace with the reality that he didn’t have the — pardon the corporate-speak — bandwidth to take the reins.   

For the PGA of America’s decision-makers, it was scramble time, like when you settle on plans for your powder-room reno but then learn that the manufacturer has discontinued your tile choice. Captains — and this is true on the European side, too — don’t grow on trees; they are groomed. Typically, they’ll learn the ropes serving as vice-captains at either the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, or, in the case of the Presidents Cup, as outright captains. Just as on-course excellence requires reps, the thinking has gone, so, too, does sound captaining.  

Assuming the U.S. Ryder Cup Committee stuck to that strategy, the 2025 U.S. skipper almost certainly was going to come from the quintet of vice-captains who served under Zach Johnson in Rome last year. Those assistants, in the order in which Johnson appointed them, were Steve Stricker, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Fred Couples and Stewart Cink. Furyk, the losing captain in 2018, was never going to get another shot, so that left four potential options: Stricker, who was a hit among his players in his victorious captaincy at Whistling Straits in 2021; Love, who also is popular in the team room but already has had two turns at the helm (losing in 2012 and winning in ’16); Couples, who by his own admission seems destined to always be the bridesmaid and never the bride. (“Would I like to be Ryder Cup captain? Of course,” he said in 2021, “but that’s probably not going to happen”); and Cink, who has played in five Ryder Cups and been aching for the U.S. Ryder Cup Committee to call his number.  

Could Bethpage 2025 — which for years seemed ripe for a Phil Mickelson captaincy before seemingly morphing into Tiger’s team — unexpectedly become Cink’s charge? In recent weeks, as Tiger’s decision began to come into focus, Cink’s stock began to rise. The range buzz around Cink grew so loud that in a press conference after the first round of the Senior PGA Championship in late May, Cink was asked about the potential for a New York captaincy.  

“I certainly would look forward to doing that, but this is very new for me, because my name was nowhere in the conversation for a long time, and all of a sudden it’s in the conversation,” Cink said. “I got no idea why, but I get asked a lot of questions about it. If one the captaincies ever falls to me, I would be over the moon. To be able to do that would be like a dream.”

Cink also was asked about being grouped by the PGA of America with a former Ryder Cup captain in Stricker. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. “We talked a little bit about the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup,” Cink said. “We have a little bit of that in common. We’re both involved in stuff at the moment, so it’s kind of cool. I’m not sure what Steve’s plans are. He won’t tell me exactly. Doesn’t tell anybody what he’s going to do.”

Keegan Bradley of the United States walks on the third hole during the first round of the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands
Keegan Bradley’s stunning Ryder Cup captaincy? Here’s who engineered it
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Cink, it turns out, was indeed on the candidate short list of then-PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh. According to a source close to the decision-making process, Waugh presented those recommendations to his fellow Ryder Cup Committee members — a group that includes PGA brass and also Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas — in a June 18 meeting. But little time was spent deliberating over the list, which, the source said, also included Couples, Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler and Kevin Kisner, among others. When Waugh surfaced Bradley’s name, there was swift and unanimous agreement that Bradley was the most logical choice. ”His enthusiasm for the Ryder Cup stood out above everything else, and we just felt that that was the ah-ha moment,” PGA of America president John Lindert said in a Tuesday press conference in New York. “When Keegan’s name was mentioned, it was all hands went up and we were a hundred percent behind it.”   

When asked about Bradley’s surprise appointment at the Scottish Open earlier this week, Cink admitted to being “disappointed” but also that he thinks Bradley will “do a really good job. I know he wants a team win and his roots being there in New England, he’ll be a great captain.”

Cink added: “The fact that Keegan’s never been any kind of assistant role or anything, he played on some teams and played some great golf and he won a PGA Championship — those count, a lot. Younger, for sure. Maybe closer in age range to players who are going to be on the team could be a factor. Maybe they’re looking to change some things.”

Cink’s tea-leaf reading is seemingly spot on. According to the source close to the selection process, Spieth said in the June 18 meeting that “there are some choices that don’t sound like a lot of fun. Playing for Keegan sounds like fun.” There also was talk in that meeting of the need to “modernize golf” and for evolution in how the selection committee thinks about choosing captains and assembling teams. “We were just in this echo chamber of sameness,” the source said. “The Band-Aid had to be ripped off.”

Beneath that bandage was a captain no one saw coming: a player who still is in his prime and will be only 39 at next year’s matches, making him the youngest Ryder Cup captain in more than 60 years. (Arnold Palmer was 34 when he served as a playing captain in 1963.) Bradley didn’t mention names when asked about his potential assistants but did intimate that he will veer toward younger players who are still active on Tour. “I think that would be super helpful,” he said.

Does this mean the ship has sailed for captain hopefuls like Cink, Couples and Kuchar? Check back in 14 months. The answer to that question surely will lie in whether Bradley and his team leave Bethpage soaked in champagne.    

Alan Bastable

Golf.com Editor

As GOLF.com’s executive editor, Bastable is responsible for the editorial direction and voice of one of the game’s most respected and highly trafficked news and service sites. He wears many hats — editing, writing, ideating, developing, daydreaming of one day breaking 80 — and feels privileged to work with such an insanely talented and hardworking group of writers, editors and producers. Before grabbing the reins at GOLF.com, he was the features editor at GOLF Magazine. A graduate of the University of Richmond and the Columbia School of Journalism, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and foursome of kids.

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