Can LIV golfers compete at the Ryder Cup? It’s complicated

brooks koepka and dustin johnson walk together

Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson are only two of the LIV golfers who could find themselves in Ryder Cup consideration.

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The room separating the Oak Hill clubhouse from the practice green isn’t meant for idling.

So narrow is the circular, white-crown-molded space, it feels entirely incongruent with the rest of the club’s enormous facilities. This room, unlike all the others, is meant for walking through to your next destination, and not much else.

And yet this is where U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson stood on Tuesday at the PGA Championship, his skin still glistening from a practice round in the afternoon sun. Johnson, who is not a broad man, claimed most of the space in the tiny room’s doorway as he stood squeezed against the right side of the frame.

The topic of conversation, as has become the norm, was the Ryder Cup. Johnson was answering a question about the importance of majors for roster-building in the LIV era. For the members of the LIV Golf contingent, his answer was revealing.

“Yeah, I would say [I am paying more attention this week],” Johnson said. “Usually, major weeks are the most trying, the most difficult. The individuals that can execute in duress-filled situations you’re going to pay attention to.”

Johnson will be faced with the unenviable task of being the first Ryder Cup captain of the LIV era to make a determination about including players from both tours on an American squad. He has taken a deferential stance to date — carefully avoiding tipping his cap too far in either direction — but that can’t continue for much longer. The realities of a week like this one, where the best players from both tours are competing on the same field, mean Johnson is naturally keeping a close eye on everyone. Even those from the rival tour.

“You know, I think it’s my responsibility [to look at everyone],” Johnson said. “I still want to come here and compete. I mean, I still play. So that’s number one. But same time, I’ve got to remove my selfish motives and understand there’s also a bigger picture of things, too.”

If Johnson’s Ryder Cup “bigger picture” is inclusive of LIV, it’s unclear if they know that. In Wednesday’s press conferences, both Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson made their own appeals to be included in Rome come September. Bryson DeChambeau, another LIVer who competed with the Americans in 2021 at Whistling Straits, has kept his American-themed 3-wood headcover from that tournament in his bag at this week’s PGA.

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It’s clear those who made the decision to go to LIV hope they’ll be allowed on the team, and technically, as PGA of America members, all three men are allowed on the team. But the dynamic is more complicated than what the rulebook says. The captain will have to account for intangibles like team chemistry, player type and course fit when assessing viability for Rome. Particularly on that first point, it’s no guarantee LIV competitors will pass the grade.

“If I handle my business out there, everything will take care of itself,” Koepka said matter-of-factly on Wednesday. “If you win — go second, first, first, first [at the majors] — it would be kind of tough not to pick, right? But it’s not up to me. It’s up to Zach and what goes on.”

It’s difficult to say what it would take for Johnson to seriously consider including a LIV player on his Ryder Cup roster, but it is sufficient to say a Koepka major sweep would make him an attractive candidate to the U.S. Ryder Cup staff.

But there are no sure things in the era of LIV, particularly not with LIV players ineligible to earn Ryder Cup points that could guarantee them one of six automatic bids on the roster (those go only to PGA Tour members). Any LIV player selected to the roster would have to be chosen by Johnson and his staff, who have a responsibility to field the best American team. Should a player represent a noticeable talent upgrade for the Americans, that could mark an advantage for LIV. Should a player represent a questionable personality fit with the American core, it could mean the opposite.

“I welcome that [decision],” Johnson said. “That’s an awesome responsibility and an honor. And when it comes to picks and things of that nature, yes, we’re always looking out.”

European captain Luke Donald is dealing with the same dilemma, although he won’t have the option to pick stalwarts such as Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson, who recently resigned from the DP World Tour and thus are no longer eligible to be picked. It’s also clear the U.S. side — with names like Koepka and Johnson and Reed, for example — have more to gain with LIV additions. At least on paper.

“I think in terms of what Zach is doing and his options, I think that’s kind of his call,” Donald said Tuesday at Oak Hill. “Whether LIV players play on his team, again, I haven’t really talked to him much about it as a captains’ agreement, as you said. And let’s not forget there’s still LIV players that can still play on my team. They’re still eligible if they’re members of the [WP World] Tour and were born in Europe. That is still a possibility for some guys.”

Back inside the too-narrow doorway, a buzz was beginning to stir. Given that it was close to 4:30 p.m. on the Tuesday of a major championship week, and that the PGA’s Champions Dinner was expected to begin in only a few hours, an interruption to Johnson’s resting place seemed inevitable. Just as those last words left Johnson’s mouth, one came along. His name was Brooks Koepka.

Koepka, dressed in a tight-fitting white shirt and black trousers, caught Johnson’s attention as he charged through the room.

“Hey Zach!” Koepka called out.

“Hey,” Johnson replied, his voice sounding slightly startled.

Just like that, Koepka was gone — off into the practice round for the tournament that could decide his Ryder Cup future. Johnson stayed put in the doorway, his mind returning once more to the decision that could define his captaincy.

“I’ve always got one eye open, for sure,” Johnson said, completing his thought.

The room between the clubhouse and the practice green at Oak Hill may be narrow, but evidently, it’s still wide enough for a Ryder Cup-sized elephant.

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