The Ryder Cup Buddy System Rides Again

The criteria for selecting U.S. Ryder Cup captains often has seemed to magnify qualities that are barely relevant to the task, emphasizing personal achievements of an individual over personality attributes that might galvanize a team.

Twenty-eight men have led America into competition since Walter Hagen commanded the first team in Massachusetts in 1927. Every single one of those 28 captains won a major championship during his career. A winning record as a Ryder Cup player once mattered too, but that was when points were easier to come by for Americans. It’s not so important these days since the U.S. record over the last three decades has impoverished the résumés of most candidates for the captaincy.

Steve Stricker, the presumptive Ryder Cup skipper, with Tiger Woods.

Yet Ryder Cup history suggests that teams rally around leaders, not legends. Europe learned that by necessity. Lacking many major winners from whom to choose (while still passing over Sandy Lyle and Paul Lawrie), it has had five Cup-winning captains since 1995 who never claimed a major title. But when led by its greatest-ever major winner, Nick Faldo, the old continent was spanked.

The 2020 Cup will be the first in which the U.S. captain meets none of the old job requirements, but instead fulfills the only criterion that seems to matter now.

The PGA of America will name a captain to square off against Padraig Harrington at Whistling Straits sometime before the Masters, but it’s an announcement that holds all the drama of a North Korean election. Steve Stricker isn’t a major champion, or someday destined for the Hall of Fame, nor even someone with a winning record in Ryder Cup play. But he is the next captain of Team USA.

Stricker compiled a sturdy career with 12 PGA Tour wins, but his appointment is based as much on his performance with a walkie talkie. He has served as a vice-captain for the last three Ryder Cups, imitating Europe’s succession plan that familiarizes future captains with the personalities and perils of the team room long before they assume command.

By every account, Stricker is a solid citizen. He is immensely popular with his peers, which may be the primary qualification for the role since an abrasive Tom Watson triggered Phil Mickelson, spurring Lefty to launch a coup that turned the Ryder Cup team room into his safe space.

Stricker served on the PGA of America task force commissioned in the wake of that 2014 debacle at Gleneagles, a sacrifice that markedly improves one’s odds of getting the top job. He will be the third captain chosen since Watson and the third to be drawn from the task force inner sanctum, following Davis Love III and Jim Furyk.

If this trend of picking veterans from the task force continues, captains Raymond Floyd and Tom Lehman may yet ride into battle again.

I reached out to a former European Ryder Cupper, who requested anonymity to speak about a U.S. selection process that seems increasingly reliant on a close-knit buddy system.

“We base our decisions on what the players who will be playing want, not on a circle of friendship,” he said dryly.

But the European veteran insisted that captains aren’t the issue.

“The problem is that many of their leaders don’t deliver on the course with points,” he said. “As a whole they weren’t prepared for the exam in France, or the dynamic of playing away and the course set up. They became complacent with their success in ’16 and the Presidents Cups.”

He’s right, to a point. The captain doesn’t hit a shot, but he decides who does and who gets on the plane. Furyk reserved a seat to Paris for Mickelson, his task force buddy who was out of form and played poorly. Like his two immediate predecessors, Stricker will be crowdsourced into the captaincy from a select group of pals and invariably will face the same questions about whether his decisions are based on merit or loyalty, on sense or sentiment.

Regardless of the result in Wisconsin 20 months hence, Stricker’s appointment will be a positive for the U.S. team. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that a playing record is immaterial to efficacy as a captain, that character and all-around decency are just as relevant to leadership, perhaps more so. And that’s as good a standard as any to establish for the time, years from now, when the task force finally exhausts its bench., January 13, 2019.


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