Comforting myths tend to become conventional wisdom in golf. Thus, Jack Nicklaus never missed a putt that mattered, and Europe’s Ryder Cup success was due to the players lovingly bonding over dinners and airport delays. As the 71st hole of the ’77 Open and a chat with any European team veteran will attest, neither is entirely true.
There have been plenty of upsets in Europe’s team rooms over the years involving people who were not only not friends but spent the week at each other’s throats, sometimes literally. There was great camaraderie, but the Ryder Cup was not a camaraderie for the blue and yellow. To wit: two of the most talismanic figures of Europe’s glory days – Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo – would at times have struggled to find more than a few teammates who would have swung a handbag in their defense in a barroom brawl.
The unity that was within Europe’s squad was sown in common purpose, not in cordial relations. Many of the continent’s top stars felt routinely ignored on the PGA Tour and found solidarity in a common goal – to kick the enemy’s ass. Bonds between players grew organically around this goal; they weren’t a prepackaged requirement to make the list to begin with. And this is where the American team misses the point in trying to emulate what the peddlers of broken pablum claim is the secret to Europe’s success.
None of that means harmony is unwelcome. It is clearly preferable to disagree in a stressful team room, but it is not important. Many teams in many sports have benefited from the inclusion of troublesome personalities. The 44th Ryder Cup next month in Rome, however, will test the idea that a team can succeed by explicitly excluding such.
Seve Ballesteros, left, and captain Tony Jacklin celebrate as Europe marched to its first Ryder Cup victory on American soil in 1987 at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio.
Those players who did not receive one of Zach Johnson’s captain’s picks this week have limited appeals. They had an opportunity to earn their spot and didn’t, leaving their fate hostage to the intangibles that the skipper values most. Each of the choices Johnson has made is sound, despite the various squabbles. Some of the measurements cited in second-guessing are questionable anyway. Like the current form. What is “current” when the games are a month away? Or performances in previous Ryder Cups. As any financial advisor will tell you, results from 24 months ago predict nothing a month ahead. If they did, ZJ would have picked DJ, who went 5-and-0 in Whistling Straits in ’21.
But the fact that Captain Johnson’s choices can be justified does not mean that the reasons for his decisions are inscrutable.
When the final US team was announced, I received a text from a European veteran who was surprised non-selection of Keegan Bradley, whose two PGA Tour wins this season are more than any of the six men selected. “When you get a proven competitor with Ryder Cup pedigree in form, that should be enough,” he wrote. Bradley’s subsequent comment to Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis suggested that he believes his omission is due to clubbing: “I’ve always been an outsider in the sport, but I’ve tried to get closer to the guys I thought would be on the team. I’ve want to move on, I’ll have to automatically qualify for the Ryder Cup.
That view was supported by Johnson’s comments during the announcement, where popularity was repeatedly cited as a metric that mattered. Sam Burns “masks well.” Rickie Fowler “makes every team room better.” Brooks Koepka’s “friends wanted him on the team.” All of these things may be true and are not in themselves problematic, but they illuminate the process by which the American team is now selected. Jordan likes JT. Scottie likes Sam. Everyone likes Rickie. Guys who are sure of being on the team choose their own “ride or die” and the captain’s job is to provide air cover.
PGA of America’s Ryder Cup task force conceived amid inappropriate ugliness – Phil Mickelson judged Tom Watson for the loss at Gleneagles in ’14. Ever since, the mission has seemed blurred between having the American team be competitive and having a good time. America’s lineup can romp to victory in Rome, in which case any questions about how it came together will be moot. But if it loses, the firing squad will load muskets before the European guys sober up from the festivities. In that scenario, at least Johnson’s players will have plenty of friends on hand to lean on.