It was after the 2014 Ryder Cup debacle in Scotland — a week during which Phil Mickelson’s most effective shots came during the losing team’s press conference when he targeted skipper Tom Watson — that the American team decided to crowdsource the captaincy.
The PGA of America created an oft-mocked task force to reverse U.S. fortunes in the biennial event. Another undeclared objective was to ensure that future players wouldn’t be denied hugs or high fives from some grizzled legend who thought the only inspiration they needed was to see the Stars & Stripes run up the pole.
Watson was 65 when he led his squad to Gleneagles, long removed from the weekly social circus on Tour, shoehorned into the role by then PGA president Ted Bishop, who idolized him. His leadership style — about as warm and fuzzy as a boxcutter to the face — grated on players. Europe won handily and the aftermath was ugly.
Determined to ensure greater buy-in from players on the choice of future captains, the PGA of America’s task force effectively handed control of the selection process to a small cadre of Tour players who had been appointed to the panel. One of their number was duly named captain for the 2016 Cup: Davis Love III, who had led the team to a narrow defeat in ’12. Love’s four vice-captains — Tom Lehman, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods — were also fellow members of the task force star chamber. (Bubba Watson later received a pity position as VC).
The U.S.’s 17-11 victory that year at Hazeltine cemented the notion that the task force’s strategy was a winning one, so it came as no surprise a few months later when Furyk was named captain for ’18. And the first three deputies Furyk announced? Love. Stricker. Woods. He later added David Duval, Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar.
Woods relinquished the vice-captaincy when Furyk named him a captain’s pick to play, which he justified by winning the Tour Championship one day before the team got to Paris. But Furyk spent another captain’s pick on Mickelson, who had shown scant form in months and who went on to lose both sessions he played. But what he lacked in form Mickelson made up for in stature. He, too, was a member of the task force whose creation was spurred by his mutiny in Scotland.
The result was a painful loss for America.
But the buddy beat goes on. Last year Stricker was named as the captain for Whistling Straits in September.
Nice guy? Check.
Inoffensive to other players? Check.
Acceptable to Phil and Tiger? Check.
Task force member? Check.
Stricker immediately named his first vice-captain: Furyk. On Monday, he added two more names to his back office team: Love and Johnson. The task force bench is getting worked harder than the ’62 Mets, though at least the U.S. team can save on personalized accessories by just using the same gear from last time.
Even if Stricker has compiled an enviable career on the PGA Tour, even if he is regarded as one of the most solid citizens in the game, and even if the Ryder Cup is being held in his home state of Wisconsin, his appointment as captain and his choice of underlings suggests that Team USA is hostage to an awfully small circle. That’s a perception that can undermine a captain, no matter how well-intentioned. Are decisions being made in the team’s best interests or on the basis of personal loyalties among task force members? Is popularity with one’s peers now the most important consideration in selecting the leadership of Team USA?
In the years since Gleneagles, the American team has mimicked Europe’s successful strategy of breaking in future captains with a vice-captaincy role or two. But the task force buddy system keeps recycling former captains into those deputy roles, keeping the inner circle tight. If history is our guide, then Johnson can expect the nod for the ’22 captaincy, while Messrs. Stricker, Love and Furyk shouldn’t throw away their walkie-talkies.
Stricker will be the 29th man to have led America into Ryder Cup competition since Walter Hagen commanded the first team in 1927. The 28 who preceded Stricker as captain had major championship wins on their résumés.
The selection of Stricker marked a welcome end to that unimaginative tradition, but in every other respect his captaincy signals it is business as usual for the buddy system.
Published at Golfweek.com, May 11, 2020.