It’s testament to the enduring appeal of past glories that the two men long considered locks as captain’s picks for the U.S. Ryder Cup team have combined for one victory over the last five years.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are the most accomplished and durable stars of their generation. It’s been 25 years since America fielded a team that did not include at least one of them, which has rendered unthinkable for many fans the notion of a team without them, if they’re healthy.
Injuries caused Woods to miss three Ryder Cups over the last decade, and when he began his comeback seven months ago he seemed an unlikely bet to be playing this year in Paris. But when Jim Furyk announces his first three captain’s picks on Sept. 4 (the final one comes Sept. 10), Woods will be the most defensible name read aloud.
“It’s been a long year and that’s been one of my goals, to make the team,” Woods said during the Northern Trust. “To be part of that team you have to be one of the 12 best players, and I’m trending toward that.”
So too are a handful of others.
Bryson DeChambeau missed automatic qualifying by one spot but victory at the Northern Trust should secure his passage to Le Golf National.
Also in the frame: Xander Schauffele, who was T-2 at the British Open at T-6 at the U.S. Open, and Kevin Kisner, also T-2 at Carnoustie and runner-up at the WGC-Dell Match Play, a format any Ryder Cup skipper will pay attention to. Toss into the mix also Tony Finau, second to DeChambeau this week and top 10 in three majors this season.
The most debatable captain’s pick of all would be Mickelson.
In 20 PGA Tour starts this season, he’s had six top-10s, four of which came in a one-month stretch that culminated in victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He’s had none since May.
The absence of tangible results is why so much emphasis is placed on Mickelson’s intangibles, his leadership qualities and popularity with younger team members.
“Phil’s been that basically for the last four or five Ryder Cups. He’s been a playing captain. He’s been a leader for the team,” said Davis Love III, who was nominally captain for two of those Cups.
That’s true, but it’s also the kind of immeasurable metric that implies Mickelson has a place on Team USA until he decides to step aside. And who will tell an aging monarch when it is time to abdicate for the good of the kingdom? It’s unlikely to be Furyk, who shared all nine of his Ryder Cup team rooms with Mickelson.
This is Phil’s team, and the captain knows it.
It’s been that way since his 2014 coup against Tom Watson at Gleneagles, an unseemly knifing that ultimately led a PGA of America task force to hand more power to players, including in the choosing of captains.
Getting players more invested in decisions is an obvious positive. A less obvious negative is that captains risk being compromised by the very buddy system the task force deferred to.
Watson was criticized for being estranged from his team, by both generation and disposition. It was a fair rap. But decisions made by peers are no less fraught. In 2016, Darren Clarke weighed friendship over form in picking Lee Westwood, who lost every match he played.
There are sentimental reasons for picking Mickelson: he’s made every Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup squad since 1994, and he’s just two wins shy of passing Billy Casper as the top U.S. Ryder Cup points scorer ever. Mickelson’s overall record is 18-20-7. Not atrocious, by any means, but shy of what a vaunted team leader might be expected to deliver. (His last three Cups brightened a grim ledger after seven consecutive losing performances.)
Captain’s picks ought to sacrifice misty-eyed sentiment for present form and future potential. Right now, Furyk’s team features a single rookie: Justin Thomas. Adding fresh blood would be a commendable investment in the future of Team USA, and all of the most-worthy recruits — DeChambeau, Schauffele, Kisner and Finau — are playing better than the 48-year-old veteran of 12 teams.
Mickelson’s leadership and popularity are reasons why he should be in Paris. Current form is why his sticks should stay in California. Tiger earning a pick frees up a vice-captain position. Phil should be a lock for that.
Golfweek, August 26, 2018.