Scrutinizing the captains’ picks for the 2008 Ryder Cup

Paul Azinger, right, will captain the U.S. team that will try to reclaim the Ryder Cup trophy from Nick Faldo and the European team.
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Now that Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo have made their picks to complete both Ryder Cup teams, the scrutiny has begun.

The selections of Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan were not surprising. Stricker finished ninth in the U.S. Ryder Cup team standings and Mahan finished 12th. Both players competed well last fall in the Presidents Cup and showed flashes of good play coming down the stretch at the Barclays. Think of their selection this way: Neither has major-league experience (Ryder Cup), but both have solid AAA resumes (Presidents Cup).

Picking J.B. Holmes, who finished 17th on the list and won this year’s FBR Open in Scottsdale, was not a real shock either. It was clear that Azinger liked the idea of having Holmes, a big-hitting Kentucky native, on the team in Louisville. Perhaps we will see him playing alongside Kenny Perry, another Kentucky native, at some point over the three days.

Chad Campbell’s selection is slightly more surprising because his most recent win was the Viking Classic, a Fall Series event, in 2007. Campbell is solid off the tee and in the fairway, and when his putter gets hot he can shoot some very low scores. That said, he has missed eight cuts this year, and his best finishes were a tie for second at the Shell Houston Open and a tie for third at the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee (an event played the same week as the British Open). In two Ryder Cup appearances, his record is 1-3-2.

I thought Azinger might go with Scott Verplank, who finished 33rd in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings and has Ryder Cup experience, having played in 2002 and 2006. Verplank, who has had a tough summer after the death of his sister-in-law, is a fantastic putter and a solid team guy.

Not selecting Woody Austin, who finished 10th in the Ryder Cup standings, must have been a really tough decision. Like Stricker and Mahan, Austin performed well in last year’s Presidents Cup and has made no secret of his desire to play at Valhalla. He even wore an American flag shirt during Monday’s final round at the Deutsche Bank.

Rocco Mediate’s name also kept popping up as a possible captain’s pick. While he and Azinger are good friends, Rocco’s 2008 season has been completely defined by his performance at Torrey Pines–not by consistently good play. And honestly, I’m not sure Azinger could afford to pick a guy whose back might only allow him to play 18 holes a day. It’s a shame, but I’m just not sure Rocco could withstand the wear and tear of a Ryder Cup competition.

Many will criticize Azinger’s picks, but can you really say that any other four players would have made the United States squad appreciably stronger? As Azinger noted in his press conference, “No one has really jumped off the page.” Ultimately, the captain and his picks will be vilified or praised based on their performance.

Conversely, Faldo had the unenviable job of selecting “only” two players to complete his team. Paul Casey and Ian Poulter got the nod over veterans Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie.

Clarke won twice this season, including a European Tour event two weeks ago, so the Irish press is not too thrilled with Nick right now. And while Monty has not played up to his normal standards this season, his absence will certainly be noticeable.

Whether he knows it or not, Faldo has done the next European captain a great service. By leaving Clarke and Montgomerie off the team, he has pushed Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington into leadership positions. No matter who makes the team for Celtic Manor in 2010, the European side would seem to be assured of having leadership, experience and talent. In the long run, Faldo has ensured that the Euros will remain strong by making this the year of transition.

For fans of American golf, that might seem like a scary prospect, but keep this in mind: This year’s Ryder Cup will be the first in which the traditional roles are reversed. The Americans usually enter the Ryder Cup with everything to lose and nothing to gain because they have repeatedly had the team that seemed stronger on paper. Now, looking at the European team that features players like Harrington, Garcia, Lee Westwood, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Casey and Henrik Stenson, the tables have turned.

We just don’t know how the Europeans will react to being the favorites. Nor do we know how the Americans will like the underdog role. How the captains address the mental side of the Ryder Cup will be very interesting. Faldo has to make sure his troops are motivated and focused. Azinger has to find a way to motivate the Americans to play their best golf of the season against the team he described as “a juggernaut.” Whichever team comes out the most motivated, I think, will be the one that wins.

As I said, the scrutiny has begun. So many questions, and only three days at Valhalla to find the answers.