Tour Confidential: Ryder Cup picks, snubs and controversial concessions
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, our team discusses the U.S. Ryder Cup captain’s picks, Lexi Thompson’s inclusion on the U.S. Solheim Cup team and a controversial Walker Cup concession.
1. The U.S. Ryder Cup team was finalized with captain Zach Johnson selecting his six captain’s picks. While a few of the selections were obvious, there were a couple of mild surprises, including Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler leapfrogging into the top 12 to kick out Cameron Young and Keegan Bradley. What are your thoughts on the six captain’s picks?
Sean Zak, senior writer (@Sean_Zak): These picks were about comfort for all involved. For Jordan Spieth, who likes playing with Justin Thomas. For Scottie Scheffler, who is best buds with Sam Burns. But mostly they were about comfort for Zach Johnson. There would be more discomfort had he selected Lucas Glover, a 43-year-old. There would be some discomfort in finding who to pair with Cam Young (though that wouldn’t be too hard). There would be some discomfort in bringing along anyone besides the guys who mesh best with those already on the team. So with that in mind, they were fine picks.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): Agreed. The picks are fine. As easy to defend as they are to criticize. Johnson could have gone any number of ways with equally valid reasoning. It’s been said before and I think it’s true: Ryder Cup captains often get too much blame for losses and too much credit for wins. The blame seems especially intense in the US, where the sense of American exceptionalism makes it hard for a lot of fans to accept the possibility that the US team simply got outplayed by a stronger or more cohesive squad. People think there has to be some other explanation. It almost makes you want to root for the Europeans, as all the hand-wringing and soul-searching and second-guessing in the wake of a US loss is a kind of curious entertainment in itself. And it helps feed the fervid, flag-waving rivalry that this thing has become.
Jessica Marksbury, senior editor (@Jess_Marksbury): I agree that all the picks are defensible. And I sympathize with Keegan, especially, knowing how much the Ryder Cup means to him. But Johnson’s decisions illustrate the whole point of having six picks. It’s meant to grant the captain the flexibility of not choosing the next guy down on the points list, deserving though he may be. And that’s exactly what he did. Whether it was a good or a bad call, well, we’ll let you know in a month.
2. Thomas’ struggles over the past couple of months have been well-documented. Is there even more pressure on him now after he received a semi-controversial pick? Or is an event like the Ryder Cup exactly what he needs to start fresh and get out of his slump?
Zak: Absolutely there is more pressure on him now, but he knows that. JT is no chump to pressure. He’ll have had a full month between events, and I gather that’s enough time to take a nice, deep breath and settle back close to his norm of form. I don’t anticipate him to play at his highest level, but even his third gear is really good when paired with Jordan Spieth.
Sens: Definitely more pressure and closer scrutiny. And a good chance Thomas will find a way to rise to the occasion. If he doesn’t, it won’t be because the moment was too big for him. It will be because golf is fickle and cruel, and slumps can be hard to break.
Marksbury: Well said, Josh. The pressure will be immense because if it goes wrong, there will be plenty of told-you-so armchair observers ready to pounce. But I think this could be just the atmosphere and opportunity to jump-start a player like Thomas. I’m reminded of 2018 in Paris when Sergio Garcia needed a captain’s pick to get on the team and went on to win three points. I could see Thomas putting on a similar display.
Zak: The biggest snub is Bradley, no doubt. Because we allow ourselves to believe this is a more linear race, where the numbers matter most, and where victories reign supreme. But in reality, it’s all a bit more like a political campaign. How you make people feel might be more valuable than what exactly you’ve done. Unfortunately for Bradley, Justin Thomas and Sam Burns make the current crop of very important players (Scheffler, Spieth) feel good.
Sens: Bradley for sure. In part because of how well he played this year and how badly he wanted it. But also because his window of opportunity is slimmer than it is for the younger guys. At 37, he doesn’t have as many chances left.
Marksbury: Bradley, yes. He was so public about his desire to make the team and feeling as though he’d done enough that the sting of not being picked must be especially brutal.
4. Bradley told Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis he’s always been an outsider in the sport and that he’s “tried to get closer to the guys I thought would be on the team … I feel like moving forward I’m going to have to automatically qualify for the Ryder Cup.” Assistant captain Fred Couples also alluded to something of a “boys’ club,” saying “he’s an older guy, and [Bradley’s] not in tight with them. If that had 20 percent to do with it, I won’t argue that.” How much should this factor into picking a team? Is this a problem?
Zak: I think it should factor in, because there’s definitely an unquantifiable element of wanting your best players to feel most comfortable overseas. If Justin Thomas makes Jordan Spieth more comfortable, maybe 20 percent of the decision should be on that. It is, of course, a slippery slope. If, say, Sam Burns was ranked 30th in the rankings and then got the call, that could become a problem.
Sens: Team chemistry has to be one of the considerations. But being pals with your partner doesn’t guarantee that you’ll drain more putts. In this case, I don’t see a problem with Johnson’s picks. But I also wouldn’t have seen a problem if he’d gone with Keegan Bradley over Justin Thomas, say. There was no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here. That verdict will be after the final results are in, when Johnson is either hailed as a brilliant strategist or stumbling captain who picked his players according to whether they take spring break together.
Marksbury: I think this goes back to the earlier discussion of the rationale behind captain’s picks in general. A “boy’s club” or a feeling of picking favorites is always going to be a factor when things get subjective. Within the current selection parameters, I don’t think it’s a problem. It is what it is. The point is to win, and clearly, Johnson and Co. believe they’ve assembled the best team possible. The only way to eliminate that subjectivity completely would be to do away with captain’s picks altogether — which I don’t necessarily think is a bad idea!
5. Before the Ryder Cup gets underway, we’ll head to Spain for the Solheim Cup, where the U.S. will try to beat Europe for the first time since 2017. Stacy Lewis finalized her team with three captain’s picks on Monday, although one of her most well-known players, auto-qualifier Lexi Thompson, has struggled lately. She’s missed eight of 10 cuts this year, has yet to record a top-30 finish and is in danger of losing full playing privileges for next year. What’s going on with Lexi? And how important will Thompson finding her form be for Team USA to end the Solheim Cup losing skid?
Zak: Lexi’s long game isn’t nearly as good as it once was, so she’s lost a bit of an advantage she once had. But all players go through valleys, and we only tend to pay the most attention to the best players. So she’s going through one. Is that concerning for the Solheim Cup? Absolutely. Does she have to play more than two or three matches? Not at all. You can hide people in poor form during these events. So if that’s the case, it’ll be up to Capt. Lewis.
Sens: The stats show long-game struggles. What the numbers don’t measure are confidence levels, which don’t seem nearly what they once were. But how many times have we seen fiery competitors find their form for these team matches? It could happen with Thompson at this year’s Solheim Cup. And if not, Captain Lewis adjusts accordingly. Of course, it would help the U.S. cause for Thompson to play well. But all is not lost if she doesn’t.
Marksbury: Lexi is such a star, it lifts the entire women’s game when she’s playing well. I’m so glad we’ll still get to see her suited up in the stars and stripes in Spain. She’s a fierce competitor, and like Justin Thomas, I’m hopeful that the pomp and circumstance of the proceedings might coax her into better form. But the U.S. team is also deep! Lilia Vu, Nelly Korda, Meghan Kang, Angel Yin, Rose Zhang, to name a few. I feel good about the team’s prospects even if Lexi remains in a bit of a rut.
6. This weekend marked the first time we haven’t had a PGA Tour event in, well, a long time. Now that we’ve had some time to digest the 2022-23 season, what was your most memorable moment? And what specific moment didn’t receive as much credit as it should have at the time?
Zak: Most memorable moment will be the morning of Tuesday at the Canadian Open, when CNBC reported a merger between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Rarely have we ever seen breaking news that was so shocking and kept so well under wraps. And thanks to investigations and senate hearings and still pending lawsuits, we continue to learn more and more about it.
The specific moment that will never be appreciated as much as it should have was the half of an hour late in the afternoon Sunday at the Masters where we had to seriously consider Phil Mickelson as the clubhouse leader who might have to get ready for a playoff. That final round 65 he shot this year at Augusta was one of the most underrated rounds of the entire golf year. How many shots do you remember from it?
Sens: That merger announcement, no doubt. An about-face so stunning, a lot of people mistook it at first for a spoof. If it weren’t for the congressional inquiries it has triggered, I might still think it was an Onion headline.
Phil’s Augusta round is a great call. I might also add the revival of Brooks Koepka. For all the press it got, it’s still hard to overstate what a dramatic turnabout that was. His competitive obituary had essentially been written. Conventional wisdom was that he was done. He’d cashed in with Saudis and given up his claim to alpha bad-boy status. Those themes were all further underscored by the Full Swing documentary, which presented Koepka as something of a sad-sack, nursing his injuries and regrets, resigned to the fact that he could no longer compete at the highest level. Then came the Masters and the PGA.
Marksbury: Wow, those are some great calls. Tough to top. I’ll throw my hat in the ring with a storyline: Rickie’s resurgence. After he ended his slump with a win at the Rocket Mortgage and then co-led the U.S. Open through three rounds, I truly thought it was his time. I think every golf fan wants to see Rickie win a major. And when he didn’t, he displayed the same amount of graciousness that he always does, answering questions and signing autographs, despite what must have been a searing disappointment. That stuck with me.
And then on the women’s side, it’s gotta be Rose Zhang, winning her pro debut at the Mizuho Americas Open in dramatic fashion. We have so much to look forward to!
7. There was a bit of controversy during the Sunday singles session at the Walker Cup at St. Andrews when American Gordon Sargent and Great Britain & Ireland’s John Gough went “good, good” on the 16th green to concede each other’s par putt from about four feet. The match, the fourth of 10, was tied at the time, and Sargent won the next hole and eventually the match, 1 up. “We felt like we both were gonna make it so we were kinda like let’s just take it to 17 and hopefully put on a show for the fans,” Sargent said. Gough later added: “We both had disgusting left-to-righters and said, ‘On to the next tee,’ and he agreed, so we went.” The broadcast team was stunned at this move. Do you have an issue with it?
Marksbury: It was definitely a surprising move. Four-footers aren’t ever gimmes in my world! I’ll gladly accept any concession, but I’m not sure I would have given one at that point. It doesn’t sound like there’s any regret on either player’s end, though, so perhaps we’re making something out of nothing.
Sens: Just as no one wants to lose a match by botching a short putt, no one really wants to win that way either. So you can understand the ‘good-good’ impulse. But it’s got to be a lot easier to sit with for Sargent. Gough is in the tougher spot, left to grapple with the ‘what if’s.’