Davis Love III has made his four wild-card picks for the 39th Ryder Cup, and they have been parsed and poked and put under the microscope every which way since he announced them at a highly anticipated news conference in New York on Tuesday morning.
Sure, Jim Furyk has an 8-15-4 record in the Ryder Cup, which isn’t great, but the winner of the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields clearly plays well in the Central Time Zone. (The Matches start Sept. 28 in Chicago.) Steve Stricker pairs well with Tiger and peaks in events that include NBC’s most affable analyst, Roger Maltbie, after which the two enjoy a good cry. Dustin Johnson hits it a mile, and Medinah, Love said, is “a big ballpark.” Brandt Snedeker, the only rookie among the captain’s picks but one of four on this U.S. team, putts well and is the kind of guy who’s usually good for a laugh. He also plays fast.
It’s trendy to say Ryder Cup captains get too much credit for the outcome — vilified with a loss, canonized with a win — but in my experience the opposite is true. The captains are everything; their impact can’t be overstated. Announcements like Love’s, especially his decision to bring in Furyk and snub Hunter Mahan (who would have finished ninth had the Ryder Cup points race continued through the Deutsche Bank Championship), deserve all the pomp they get and then some.
Consider this Ryder Cup moment: An otherwise unremarkable Wednesday at the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. Paul Azinger announces his three assistant captains: Dave Stockton, Raymond Floyd, and Olin Browne — ruthless, no-nonsense competitors, all three of them, just like Azinger. I remember the hair on my arms standing on end, and a chill running down my spine, as I sat in that room in the media tent. It was in that moment that I understood exactly how Azinger viewed the Cup, as golf’s version of a street fight, and I knew immediately that I agreed with him. The U.S. is going to win, I thought. This was not a sensible premonition. The U.S. hadn’t won since 1999, and then only on the wings of a miracle comeback in the singles.
Of course the U.S. did win, 16 1/2-11 1/2, the biggest rout of Europe since the U.S. won 18 1/2-9 1/2 at Walton Heath in 1981. The official Ryder Cup website describes that 2008 team as a “gang of frisky underdogs,” which doesn’t go far enough for this ragtag bunch. Ben Curtis and J.B. Holmes? Kenny Perry on the verge of Champions tour eligibility? Boo Weekley riding his driver like a horse? Streaky Chad Campbell and loose cannon Anthony Kim, whose career has all but died? Four years after the fact, it blows your mind to look at the team photo.
Azinger tweaked Euro captain Nick Faldo every chance he got, and later revealed he'd split the U.S. team into three four-man "pods" after watching a documentary about the Navy SEALs on the Discovery Channel.
Fast-forward to 2012. Nothing that Love has said or done has seemed all that daring or inspiring. It’s not a problem in and of itself that this team will feature just three players from the ’08 squad: Furyk, who went 2-1-1 at Valhalla, one of his better Ryder Cup outings; Phil Mickelson (1-2-2); and Stricker (0-2-1). Forget Furyk’s abysmal career Ryder record; Phil’s underwhelming 11-17-6 mark; the fact that no U.S. player has a winning Ryder Cup record; and that odd man out Mahan, who won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship earlier this year, went undefeated in ’08 (2-0-3).
What’s most worrisome about this year’s U.S. side is the decided lack of edginess at the top. Love is a very nice guy, and his highest profile assistant, Fred Couples, routinely comes out on top on those polls about which fellow Tour player you’d most like to go bowling with. Mike Hulbert will fulfill the Olin Browne role — never won a major but is tight with the captain — and Love will also rely on cuddly Jeff Sluman and Scott Verplank. Love said Tuesday that we’ll also probably see a lot of NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in some capacity, most likely that of wandering around and watching golf and being Michael Jordan.
Are the hairs on your arms standing up? No, mine aren’t, either. Love, who looked nervous and was admittedly sleep-deprived for Tuesday’s press conference, briefly touched on how the U.S. players could only benefit from Jordan’s presence, but history suggests otherwise. The iconic retired hoopster was impossible to miss at the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, 300 miles east of Medinah, and U.S. captain Hal Sutton’s team was manhandled 18 1/2-9 1/2. On the off-chance that his mere presence will dredge up that awful memory, Jordan’s invitation to the U.S. team room ought to be rescinded and replaced by a restraining order.
You get the sense that European captain Jose Maria Olazabal, who with the late Seve Ballesteros made up the best two-man team in Ryder Cup history (11-2-2), would never make, say, David Beckham part of his plan. Olazabal has four vice-captains: edgy, brooding Thomas Bjorn; edgy, brooding Darren Clarke; affable Miguel Angel Jimenez; and affable Paul McGinley. If you believe a Ryder Cup team takes its cues from the captain, whose job it is to convey urgency and fight while deftly managing personalities, then you have to believe Europe is already 1 up, at least.
It’s no accident that the two most dynamic captains of the last 20 years-plus, Azinger and Ballesteros, couldn’t stand each other. Two of the testiest, most combative players of their era, they reminded one another too much of themselves. Even their captaincies were similar. Much like Azinger’s ’08 squad, Ballesteros’s ’97 team didn’t exactly inspire awe. He had five rookies, including Bjorn, Clarke, Ignacio Garrido, Jesper Parnevik and Lee Westwood. Seve also had at his disposal the decidedly unprepossessing Per-Ulrik Johansson and the goofy Costantino Rocca, the Euro equivalents of and precursors to Azinger’s Chad Campbell and Boo Weekley. And of course Ballesteros rode his golf cart all over Valderrama and cajoled, consoled and encouraged his troops to a thrilling, 14 1/2-13 1/2 victory over the comparatively milquetoast Tom Kite’s U.S. side. Rocca not only beat Woods in singles, he beat him 4 and 2 — a crazy upset that looks even crazier 15 years later.
In the lineage of Ryder captaincies, Olazabal is clearly a descendent of Ballesteros — nice company — but what about Love? On Tuesday he spoke about his first Ryder Cup experience, at the Belfry in 1993. A rookie, Love was paired with a veteran whose job it was to steer Love around the course as they played none other than Ballesteros and Olazabal, the Spanish Armada, three times in a row. Not surprisingly, Love’s team won once and lost twice. His partner: Kite.
Expect Olazabal to rack up another win at Medinah. It might not even be close.