Three players are most worthy of Steve Stricker’s captain’s picks. Here’s who he’s most likely to take

September 5, 2017

How would you like to be Steve Stricker right about now? At 5 p.m. Wednesday, he is scheduled to announce his two captain’s picks for the U.S. Presidents Cup team. He has to be suffering.

Stricker notably lacks the ruthless gene. He’s just genuinely . . . nice. When a 94-year-old man, a fellow Wisconsinite, died while watching Stricker play at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills last June, Stricker sent flowers to the funeral.

Well, sometime soon here, Stricker is going to be making another kind of condolence call, to either Charley Hoffman or Brian Harman or Phil Mickelson. Among others. But to one of those three in particular. Because he has two spots to fill on the 12-man roster. And three players—Hoffman, Harman and Mickelson—for whom you can make a particularly strong case. Someone is going to be the odd man out.

Mickelson, 47, has said all the right things here, for a couple weeks here. To summarize it: Stricker has to do the best thing for the team.

Here’s the unspoken part:

Don’t worry, Steve, my man, about THE RUN here. You know, how I’ve been on every Presidents Cup team since 1994, every Ryder Cup team since ’95, and that I played on two Walker Cup teams as an amateur. Don’t worry that I’m 15th on the points list—in spitting distance of the 10th guy, Kevin Chappell—and that I spent four days in Boston talking to my golf ball, playing two-glove golf at times and golfing my ball for 72 holes, plus good practice sessions, with a sense of urgency and focus I didn’t even know I had anymore.

Unless Stricker has an intense dislike for Phil on a personal level (which is hard to imagine), it is impossible to see him calling Mickelson to tell him that he is not on the team. Playing on this Presidents Cup team is significant to Mickelson for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that Liberty National, the venue, is one of his East Coast hangouts. (He’s a member.) For Mickelson, more than anybody else, the 2017 Presidents Cup team represents the first and important session of his tryout for Jim Furyk’s 2018 Ryder Cup team. In Mickelson’s mind, Ryder Cup play has defined his professional life as much as anything he has done. He’s not going quietly into that good night.

If a bad-news call to Mickelson is almost impossible for Stricker to make, it would be nearly as hard for him to make that call to Hoffman. Hoffman is 40—doesn’t he seem older?—and he’s never been on a Presidents Cup team, a Ryder Cup team or even a Walker Cup team, despite an outstanding amateur career. He lost in a one-hole playoff to Jhonattan Vegas at the Canadian Open in July—Vegas will be on the International team—and he hasn’t won on Tour since the Texas Open, 17 months ago.

Yes, Mickelson likes playing with Hoffman (two brash guys) but that’s an unlikely pairing. And, yes, there was that cool moment Sunday at Firestone, caught by a CBS boom mic, where Hoffman, debating whether to layup or not from 280 yards with a pond in play, says to his caddie, “I’m tired of finishing second.” He played a great shot there, but finished third, six shots behind Hideki Matsuyama, who will be the International team’s front-liner.

Is the American team a better team with Hoffman on it, as compared to Harman (12th on the points list) or Pat Perez (22nd on the points list) or Bubba Watson (32nd on the points list)? Not likely. Still, you cannot see Stricker—who, like Hoffman, played some of the best golf of his life in his late 30s and early 40s—calling the Californian to tell him he’s not on the team.

Why? Because of Stricker’s strong sense of fairness. The PGA Tour has a point system for determining the first 10 players on the U.S. team. Chappell wrapped up the 10th spot with 4,368. Hoffman also had 4,368 points. So the Tour extended the math to three decimal points. Chappell’s final was 4,368.804 to Hoffman’s 4,368.631 points. These points are not strokes over 72 holes, or even dollars (and cents) earned over the course of a season, back when Tour kept score with money earned. These points are a lesser thing. They are mere points, meant to summarize the quality of a player’s output over a two-year period. And the margin between them is essentially a statistical tie.

By the way, you may recall the exchange, captured again by CBS, that Chappell had with Hoffman on Sunday at the Canadian Open. On the par-3 12th, Hoffman’s tee shot left him with a hideous fried-egg lie in a greenside bunker. He asked and got the chance to drop, citing the cement liner he could feel under his feet as he dug in to play the shot.

Chappell said to the rules official, “That is so generous. Look at that sh-t-eating grin on his face.”

Hoffman’s response is perfect: “Hey, man: rules.”

In any event, it is almost impossible to imagine Stricker calling Hoffman to tell him that the .23 points that separated the two golfers was enough to keep Hoffman off the team.

Which brings us to the call Stricker will be able to make, difficult though it will be. And that is the one to tell Harman, the 30-year-old lefthander from Georgia, that he is not on the team. The big message is easy: You’re young, you’re talented, you’re hardworking, you’re gritty. You can make a half-dozen national teams before you are done, in addition to the two Walker Cup teams on which you have already played.

Some guys wouldn’t care that much. Harman will. It will hurt him. He knows how much he could bring to the team, and Stricker does, too. But there’s something to be said for earning your way on to your first national team. Not getting there by way of a captain’s pick. Stricker will surely tell Harman that all he has to do is keep doing what he’s doing and he’ll be on Furyk’s Ryder Cup team next year. If I know Harman, he won’t even be listening at that point. He’ll be thinking about getting back on the range, the course, the putting green. He’ll be thinking about getting better, so he never has to endure a call like that again. Stricker will hang up the phone (he might actually call from a real phone) feeling slightly ill. But the other options were worse.