2021 Ryder Cup Projected Captain’s Picks: Analyzing Contenders for the Final Spots on Team USA
Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images. Pictured: Sam Burns
Half of the U.S. Ryder Cup team roster is now set, as captain Steve Stricker will have one more week to evaluate and analyze his six wildcard selections, an announcement which will be made following the Tour Championship.
While it might seem a bit questionable that, once again, the two-year qualification process ends before the final event of the season, that small detail wouldn’t have had any impact on the overall makeup of the squad.
Instead, plenty of other questions do remain, however, after Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Patrick Cantlay qualified for the team.
Will the captain and his cadre of assistants round out the bottom half of the lineup with players who have fared the best during these FedEx Cup playoffs? Or those who own games best built to handle the stout Whistling Straits host venue? Or players who will seamlessly pair with somebody already on the roster?
Most likely — and hopefully, for U.S. supporters — it’s a combination of all three.
As is often the case in most Ryder Cup years, the picture has become much clearer in the last few weeks, with a few borderline selections playing their way on to the team and a few others essentially eliminating themselves from contention.
Let’s take a look at the entire potential composition of the roster, less than one month before the festivities get under way.
Morikawa, Johnson, DeChambeau, Koepka, Thomas and Cantlay
If we really want to, we can nitpick this six-pack of studs.
DJ has spent most of the summer in varying degrees of “close” without ever quite getting there. The same can be said for JT, as well. In recent weeks, Morikawa has been hampered by a back issue, which might or might not continue to linger. And of course, then there’s Brooks and Bryson, who have each promised Stricker they’ll put aside their differences for the sake of the nation.
Again, though, that’s all just nitpicking.
These qualifiers account for six of the world’s nine highest-ranked players. They are an amalgam of big hitters and ball-strikers, each of whom fits the sturdy test of Whistling Straits, which will undoubtedly be stretched out and windblown.
If we’ve learned anything about this competition over the past two decades, it’s that owning the stronger team on paper doesn’t often translate to success, but as any NBA super-team will argue, you can never have too much talent.
If there’s a timely question about these half-dozen players right now, it’s less about how they’ll fare in three-and-a-half weeks and more about how they’ll impact any of the impending captain’s picks. More specifically: Is there a chance Stricker names a player to the roster for the sole purpose of pairing him with DeChambeau for the first two days? And if so, who is that player?
The Next Three
Tony Finau, Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth
If those first six players are already officially on the team, then these next three are temporarily unofficially official.
Finau, Schauffele and Spieth finished 7-8-9 on the points list, but none of the three should be sweating the upcoming announcement. In fact, it’s fair to envision a scenario in which each of them compete in more matches than many of those who qualified.
All three own much desired skillsets for this competition. Finau brings offensive firepower that would seemingly be suited for the fourball format; Schauffele is a calm, collected, big-game hunter who could very well be a four-match partner for Cantlay; and Spieth remains the ultimate short-game magician, an opponent’s worst nightmare and a potential sidekick for “good buddy” Thomas.
Harris English and Daniel Berger
There are two schools of thought when a captain is making his Ryder Cup picks: You can either reward those who “deserve” the spots based on their performance over the past two years or you can choose those who are best equipped to help the team win.
That might sound like a no-brainer decision, but if there’s a difference in these selections between the U.S. and Europe over the past two decades, it’s that the U.S. too often has gone the former route over the latter.
This issue isn’t as cut and dried as it might seem, though.
First, it takes any criticism off the captain and his staff if the “most deserving” players are named to the roster. If Stricker goes way off the board and his picks play poorly, it’s on him; if he goes with conventional wisdom and the picks play poorly, it’s on them.
Second, and most importantly in this current situation, is that it’s really difficult to bypass a pair of players who have strong resumes in favor of a few who might – yes, might – fit the course better.
All of which leads to English and Berger. Each has been particularly impressive over the past year, perhaps still underrated in comparison to many of their well-known peers.
Chances are, neither of these guys is going to single-handedly win the Ryder Cup for this team, but they’re not going to lose it, either. As three-match players, each potentially competing in a pair of foursomes matches during the first two days, they’re solid ball-strikers who will be likable teammates and can partner with virtually anyone else.
Flexibility and malleability are important characteristics at the bottom of the lineup, the sort of intangibles that any team-sport coach seeks when it comes to cut-down day.
Being able to not only pair with anyone else, but beat a European player straight-up on Sunday – only one player on the opposing side is ahead of English in the OWGR (Jon Rahm) and only three are ahead of Berger (Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Tyrrell Hatton) – should give each of these guys an inside track on making the team.
The Ultimate Wildcard
He was a late withdrawal from the Wyndham Championship in order to spend some family time at home after a busy summer, according to one source. He was a WD the next week with an ankle issue, one which has reportedly healed up. And he was a WD again last week, after being hospitalized with what his team referred to as bilateral pneumonia.
As of the time of this writing, Reed was still in this week’s Tour Championship field, as a wayward K.H. Lee approach shot on the final hole last week – among many, many other things – allowed him to miss the first two playoff events and still squeeze his way in, as the 30th and final player above the final checkpoint.
It’s well within reason to believe that Captain America’s shot at playing on this year’s team came down to math, since missing three straight events and spending time in the hospital would’ve likely crushed his chances had he not been able to compete in another event before the selections.
Now, though, assuming he’s healthy and can tee it up this week, Reed has one last opportunity to not only showcase his skills, but more importantly, prove he’s physically capable of still being a consideration.
For all of the positives that he’s brought to the team in recent years – the bravado, the theatrics, the incessant shushing – Reed is also a polarizing figure who didn’t exactly endear himself to teammates after calling out Spieth for forsaking him as a partner at the last Ryder Cup three years ago.
Consider him the ultimate high-ceiling/low-floor play for Stricker. At best, he can be the engine which propels this squad to victory; at worst, he can be a team-room cancer who sucks away some of the chemistry. All of which makes him the biggest wildcard on the board.
The Moore Men
Sam Burns, Scottie Scheffler and Jason Kokrak
Five years ago, Ryan Moore was largely an afterthought in the captain’s pick discussion one month prior to the final announcement. The process was different then, as Davis Love III announced three of his wildcard selections before the final two FedEx Cup playoff events, then held on to the last pick until after the Tour Championship.
Following a campaign during which he finished 20th on the points list, Moore got going at the right time, with results of T-7 and T-8 in the first two playoff events. At East Lake, he finished runner-up, losing in a playoff to McIlroy, but it was enough to get Love’s attention. He was named to the team that night, flew directly to Hazeltine and clinched the winning point on Sunday afternoon.
Granted, selecting the “hot” player a half-decade ago made more sense, with the Tour Championship ending just days before the start of the Ryder Cup. There’s little guarantee that a solid week in the beginning of September in Atlanta will lead to a solid week at the end of September in Wisconsin.
Even so, it feels like this week could, in part, be a qualifier for that 12th and final spot.
If Stricker decides against Reed – or he’s not impressed by English/Berger — then Burns just might own the inside track. He’s finished 8th-21st-2nd in his last three starts and would bring a little newfound fire and enthusiasm to a squad which could probably use those qualities.
An all-everything junior and amateur player, the LSU product has come into his own this year, winning for the first time and rising to 25th in the world.
Scheffler is only one month older than Burns – they’re both 25 – but would bring a different vibe, perhaps less fiery, but more relaxed. If you questioned 100 of their PGA TOUR peers on which player has the brighter future, the results might end in a 50-50 draw.
It’s safe to assume that Scheffler has lost ground in the last few weeks, parlaying a strong summer into a pair of results outside the top-20 in the first two playoff events. He’ll need a good one at East Lake, where he owned the second-lowest 72-hole score last year.
Then there’s Kokrak, who is one of only six players with multiple victories this season, but still gets largely overlooked for his step into the next echelon. A big hitter with plenty of birdie potential, he’d project as a strong fourball partner for a guy like Johnson or Finau, undoubtedly combining for bunches of birdies. As far as intangibles, he’d bring plenty of swagger and moxie to the table, an intimidating presence for almost any European opponent.
None of this is to suggest that if one of these players finishes T-7 this week and the other two finish in ninth place that the low man will somehow clinch a place on Stricker’s roster. It is, however, easy to envision a Moore-like scenario, where if one of these guys is head and shoulders above the other two on the 72-hole scoring leaderboard, he could find himself on the team.
And if none of them do? The result will tell us a lot about Stricker as a captain, whether he opts for the safe play in Scheffler, the more perilous pick of Burns or goes for the course fit owned by Kokrak.
Webb Simpson, Billy Horschel, Kevin Kisner and Kevin Na
If the U.S. was to put together a “B” squad – let’s say, if the alpha dogs didn’t want to keep competing in that pesky Presidents Cup each year – the names left on the cutting room floor could offer nearly as much upside.
Antithetical to Reed, missing the season finale was a possible death knell for Simpson’s chances, which continuously diminished as the summer progressed.
That said, he’s been a favorite of past captains for his ability to get along with anyone and never rock the boat, and while injuries/illness led to an underwhelming campaign, he still closed with four top-20s in his last five starts.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Simpson makes this team, but on a course like Whistling Straits, which shouldn’t totally suit his game, we’ve got to believe he’s on the outside looking in.
If these selections were made by fans instead of the captain, then Horschel and Kisner might have an inside track. A pair of fiery, gritty dudes who have combined to capture two of the past three WGC-Match Play titles, there’s little doubt that either would excel in this type of environment, but at some point, it becomes a numbers game.
The only thing these players have done wrong is living in an era with so many strong U.S. talents. Fifteen years ago, they were would’ve been top-half-of-the-roster type of guys.
Same goes for Na, really. He would be an opponent’s worst nightmare in this format, slow-playing shots, walking in putts and generally being a nuisance to anyone trying to beat him. In a previous era, another generation, he’s an all-star on this squad.
The Screw Job
For those who don’t know the whole story, here’s the Cliff Notes: A regular on the Korn Ferry Tour, Zalatoris played well enough against the big boys – including a T-6 at last year’s U.S. Open, a runner-up at this year’s Masters and a T-8 at the PGA Championship – to easily claim Special Temporary Member status on the PGA TOUR.
That was the good news. The bad news was that despite rising to as high as 27th in the OWGR, Zalatoris still never received full status, which meant he wasn’t eligible to compete in the FedEx Cup playoffs. That might’ve also killed his Ryder Cup chances.
Think about it: If he competes in the playoffs and fares well, he’s got an opportunity to showcase his talents and get named to the team.
Not being able to play, though, means Stricker would be taking a chance on a 25-year-old who would’ve gone six weeks without a competitive start before competing in the Ryder Cup (unless he played at the beginning of the upcoming 2021-22 season).
Through no fault of his own – other than the fact that he didn’t win a tournament to gain full eligibility – Zalatoris wasn’t able to play when it potentially mattered the most, which is truly a shame for both him and a team which could’ve used his skillset.
After he won the PGA Championship in May, there was one school of thought which stated Lefty would be a no-doubt-about-it Ryder Cup selection, if need be.
It has less to do with his experience and overall record – an unimpressive 18-22-7 – and more to do with what he brings to the table.
First of all, the PGA Championship is the crown jewel of the PGA of America, the very same organization which runs the Ryder Cup. The powers-that-be surely could influence Stricker to include their champion on the roster.
Secondly, let’s not forget that as much as this event is about competition, it’s also a big-time TV show. In the post-Tiger Woods era (for now, at least), no player still brings in the mainstream masses like Mickelson, who could serve as a promotional face on the advertorial platforms.
Recent results, however, have likely helped change that tune. Since winning the PGA, he owns just one finish inside the top-60 in eight starts, including a share of DFL honors last week.
At 20th on the final points list, if his name was anything other than Phil Mickelson, he wouldn’t even be the slightest afterthought in this situation, but he’s at least a consideration.
When asked recently about potentially serving as an assistant captain, he was noncommittal, as if he might have other, more important, plans for that week.
One colleague told me this week, “I’m not 100% sure that Phil won’t be on this team. I might be 99% sure, but there’s still 1% of me that thinks he might sneak his way on.”
Even if it’s at 1%, when saying there’s a chance for Mickelson, the ultimate arbiter of influence in this sport right now, he can’t be written off the list until those announcements are made next week.