Do captain’s picks matter? Nearly 40 years of history says yes

September 4, 2018

The suspense is almost over. Jim Furyk has made three of his four captain’s picks, and Thomas Bjorn will also soon round out his European Ryder Cup roster. It feels like a time-honored tradition, but in Ryder Cup years, the fine art of the captain’s pick is still relatively new.

The Ryder Cup began in 1927, but no captain arbitrarily tweaked his roster until 1979, when the Great Britain and Ireland team was expanded to include continental Europe and two wild card picks were added to help make the event more competitive.  (Back then, the U.S. routinely mopped the floor with the squad from across the pond. Funny how times change.)

America first added two captain’s picks in 1989 after dropping back-to-back Cups. Here’s a look at how the picks fared through the years, with a letter grade for each team’s respective selections.

1979

U.S. 17 – Europe 11

Europe – Captain John Jacobs

Peter Oosterhuis (2-2)

Des Smyth (0-2)

CAPTAIN’S PICKS GRADE: C

1981

U.S. 18 ½ – Europe 9 ½

Europe – Captain John Jacobs

Mark James (2-3)

Peter Oosterhuis (0-3)

No captain’s pick could’ve saved Europe in these initial matches post-expansion … but a power shift was coming.

GRADE: C-

1983

U.S. 14 ½ – Europe 13 ½

No captain’s picks

Europe selected the ‘83 team entirely from its money list, and nearly pulled the upset in the most competitive Cup since the tie in 1969, which was punctuated by Jack Nicklaus’s famous “concession” on the final hole.

GRADE: N/A

1985

Europe 16 ½ – U.S. 11 ½

Europe – Captain Tony Jacklin

Jose Rivero (1-1)

Ken Brown (1-2)

Nick Faldo (0-2)

GRADE: C

1987

Europe 15 – U.S. 13

Europe – Captain Tony Jacklin

Sandy Lyle (3-1)

Jose Maria Olazabal (3-2)

Ken Brown (0-2)

Europe won back-to-back Cups, including this stunner in ’87 at Muirfield Village, which happened to be U.S. Captain Jack Nicklaus’s home course. You can almost hear the voices echoing from the U.S. locker room that Sunday night: “Hey, why don’t we start using captain’s picks, too?” In ’89, they would do just that.

GRADE: A-

The 1989 European Ryder Cup team celebrates their retention of the Cup after a 14-14 tie.
The 1989 European Ryder Cup team celebrates their retention of the Cup after a 14-14 tie.

1989

Europe 14 – U.S. 14

Europe – Captain Tony Jacklin

Howard Clark (2-2)

Christy O’Connor Jr. (1-1)

Bernhard Langer (0-3)

U.S. – Captain Ray Floyd

Lanny Wadkins (2-2)

Tom Watson (1-1-1)

The U.S. added two captain’s picks for the first time, and Watson and Wadkins went .500 for the week, mirroring the rest of the U.S. squad. But Europe got a jolt from O’Connor, whose two-iron from 229 yards to four feet on the 18th hole on Sunday clinched his match and a draw that kept the Cup in Europe.

EUROPE GRADE: B+

U.S. GRADE: B

1991

U.S. 14 ½ – Europe 13 ½

Europe – Captain Bernard Gallacher

Jose Maria Olazabal (3-1-1)

Mark James (2-3)

Nick Faldo (1-3)

U.S. – Captain Dave Stockton

Ray Floyd (2-2)

Chip Beck (1-2)

This was the epic Cup that became known as the “War by the Shore,” which wasn’t decided until the final Sunday singles match. Olazabal stood out as a force, as he formed a formidable pairing with countryman Seve Ballesteros in team matches.

EUROPE GRADE: B-

U.S. GRADE: B+

1993

U.S. 15 – Europe 13

Europe – Captain Bernard Gallacher

Seve Ballesteros (2-2)

Jose Maria Olazabal (2-3)

Joakim Haeggman (1-1)

U.S. – Captain Tom Watson

Ray Floyd (3-1)

Lanny Wadkins (2-1-1)

Floyd, a former captain, was 51 years old for this Cup (and six years older than Watson!), but Watson rolled the dice on the wily veteran, and Floyd delivered. The U.S. was down one heading into Sunday, but Floyd beat Olazabal in singles to clinch the winning point. This remains the last time the U.S. won the Cup on European soil.

EUROPE GRADE: B+

U.S. GRADE: A

1995

Europe 14 ½ – U.S. 13 ½

Europe – Captain Bernard Gallacher

Nick Faldo (2-2)

Ian Woosnam (1-1-1)

U.S. – Captain Lanny Wadkins

Fred Couples (2-1-1)

Curtis Strange (0-3)

Strange was a controversial pick, as he hadn’t won on Tour since the ’89 U.S. Open at Oak Hill, which was also the venue for this Ryder Cup. He capped a nightmare week by losing the final three holes of his singles match to Faldo to cough up a costly point. Ouch.

EUROPE GRADE: B-

U.S. GRADE: D-

1997

Europe 14 ½ – U.S. 13 ½

Europe – Captain Seve Ballesteros

Jesper Parnevik (1-1-2)

Nick Faldo (2-3)

U.S. – Captain Tom Kite

Lee Janzen (2-1)

Fred Couples (2-2)

Faldo is one of the game’s greats, but he had a pedestrian record as a wild-card pick (5-10). Still, Seve’s team built a big lead at his “homecoming” at Valderrama and hung on through singles.

EUROPE GRADE: B-

U.S. GRADE: B

Darren Clarke (left), Ian Poulter (middle) and Curtis Strange (right) have had varying degrees of success as Ryder Cup captain's picks.
Darren Clarke (left), Ian Poulter (middle) and Curtis Strange (right) have had varying degrees of success as Ryder Cup captain’s picks.

1999

U.S. 14 ½ – Europe 13 ½

Europe – Captain Mark James

Jesper Parnevik (3-1-1)

Andrew Coltart (0-1)

U.S. – Captain Ben Crenshaw

Tom Lehman (2-1)

Steve Pate (2-1)

Brookline! Everyone remembers Justin Leonard’s putt, but Pate and Lehman also delivered Sunday singles wins during a U.S. rally for the ages. James didn’t play three of Ryder Cup rookies, including Coltart, during the team matches, and each lost in Sunday singles.

EUROPE GRADE: B

U.S. GRADE: A

2002

Europe 15 ½ – U.S. 12 ½

Europe – Captain Sam Torrance

Sergio Garcia (3-2)

Jesper Parnevik (0-1-1)

U.S. – Captain Curtis Strange

Scott Verplank (2-1)

Paul Azinger (0-1-1)

At age 22 and playing in his second Cup, Garcia established himself as a bona fide European star – and American antagonist – as the home team scored its largest-ever victory to date.

EUROPE GRADE: A-

U.S. GRADE: C

2004

Europe 18 ½ – U.S. 9 ½

Europe – Captain Bernhard Langer

Colin Montgomerie (3-1)

Luke Donald (2-1-1)

U.S. – Captain Hal Sutton

Stewart Cink (1-2-1)

Jay Haas (1-2-1)

Montgomerie sank the winning putt on Sunday, although if it wasn’t him, one of his teammates surely would’ve gotten the job done in this record-breaking rout. Donald also shined in his Ryder Cup debut.

EUROPE GRADE: A

U.S. GRADE: D

2006

Europe 18 ½ – U.S. 9 ½

Europe – Captain Ian Woosnam

Darren Clarke (3-0)

Lee Westwood (3-0-2)

U.S. – Captain Tom Lehman

Scott Verplank (2-0)

Stewart Cink (1-1-3)

In terms of player records, Woosnam’s picks stand as the best ever. Clarke played to honor the memory of his wife, Heather, who died of cancer one month earlier. Woosnam paired Clarke and Westwood together for morning four-balls on Friday and Saturday and they delivered two points. Lehman for his part squeezed 4.5 points out of his picks. Not bad, considering how thoroughly his team was throttled.

EUROPE GRADE: A+

U.S. GRADE: B+

2008

U.S. 16 ½ – Europe 11 ½

Europe – Captain Nick Faldo

Ian Poulter (4-1)

Paul Casey (0-1-2)

U.S. – Paul Azinger

Chad Campbell (2-1)

J.B. Holmes (2-0-1)

Hunter Mahan (2-0-3)

Steve Stricker (0-2-1)

The U.S. grew desperate after back-to-back routs, and Paul Azinger got his wish to expand the number of U.S. captain’s picks to four. The gambit works, and his selections went 6-3-5 – offsetting a monster effort from Poulter — as the U.S. rolled at Valhalla.

EUROPE GRADE: A-

U.S. GRADE: A

Luke Donald (in white, middle) came through in a big way in Europe's 2010 win at Celtic Manor.
Captain’s pick Luke Donald (in white, middle) came through in a big way with three points in Europe’s 2010 win at Celtic Manor.

2010

Europe 14 ½ – U.S. 13 ½

Europe – Captain Colin Montgomerie

Luke Donald (3-1)

Padraig Harrington (2-2)

Edoardo Molinari (0-1-2)

U.S. – Captain Corey Pavin

Stewart Cink (1-0-3)

Rickie Fowler (0-1-2)

Zach Johnson (2-1)

Tiger Woods (3-1)

For the first time, Europe expanded to three captain’s picks. They combined to score six points, and Europe needed all of them to squeak out a win that came down to the final singles match. Playing his first Cup, Fowler rallied late in singles for a crucial half-point, and Woods enjoyed his best individual Ryder Cup performance. This is a rare case of the U.S. picks outperforming Europe’s but the team still coming up short.

EUROPE GRADE: B+

U.S. GRADE: A

2012

Europe 14 ½ – U.S. 13 ½

Europe – Captain Jose Maria Olazabal

Nicolas Colsaerts (1-3)

Ian Poulter (4-0)

U.S. – Captain Davis Love III

Jim Furyk (1-2)

Dustin Johnson (3-0)

Brandt Snedeker (1-2)

Steve Stricker (0-4)

Poulter cemented his legend as arguably the greatest captain’s pick ever (8-1 as a wild card at this point) and one of Europe’s all-timers while thumping his chest and rallying his team from a four-point deficit on Sunday in what became known as the “Miracle at Medinah.”

EUROPE GRADE: A

U.S. GRADE: B-

2014

Europe 16 ½ – U.S. 11 ½

Europe – Captain Paul McGinley

Stephen Gallacher (0-2)

Ian Poulter (0-1-2)

Lee Westwood (2-2)

U.S. – Captain Tom Watson

Keegan Bradley (1-2)

Hunter Mahan (1-2-1)

Webb Simpson (0-1-1)

Watson elected to reduce his picks from four to three, and maybe that’s for the best since none of his selections distinguished themselves at Gleneagles. Poulter wasn’t at his best, but Westwood stood out among the six wild-card picks between the two teams.

EUROPE GRADE: C

U.S. GRADE: D

2016

U.S. 17 – Europe 11

Europe – Captain Darren Clarke

Martin Kaymer (1-3)

Thomas Pieters (4-1)

Lee Westwood (0-3)

U.S. – Captain Davis Love III

Rickie Fowler (2-1)

JB Holmes (1-2)

Matt Kuchar (2-2)

Ryan Moore (2-1)

Fresh off finishing runner-up at the Tour Championship at East Lake, Moore was Love’s fourth and final selection, and he acquitted himself well. Pieters was the only European player to bag four points, but his team was outmanned at Hazeltine as the U.S. thwarted Europe’s momentum with a decisive victory.

EUROPE GRADE: C+

U.S. GRADE: A-

2018

Europe – Captain Thomas Bjorn

TBD

U.S. – Captain Jim Furyk

Bryson DeChambeau

Phil Mickelson

Tiger Woods

Reeling from its loss at Hazeltine, Team Europe has been given a fourth pick to add an extra hot hand, and European points have been weighted more heavily in late summer this year. Furyk’s first three picks turned out to be virtual no-brainers: Phil, Tiger and Bryson. The last selection is likely heading to Tony Finau, but we’ll wait a week before carving it in digital stone.

So which side had done the most with its captain’s picks? Here are the standings after 91 years of Ryder Cup history: U.S. captain’s picks: 54-50-20 (64 total points) European captain’s picks: 70-74-13 (76.5 total points)

But in the past 23 years, Europe has won eight of 11 Cups, and the captain’s picks reflect it: Captain’s picks since the 1995 Ryder Cup: U.S. 43-41-19 Europe: 44-35-12

What did we learn? Captain’s picks are vitally important, and in an era where the matches often come down to a few knee-knocking putts on late Sunday afternoon, every last point is treasured. If a captain can unearth a difference-maker like Poulter or Clarke, all the better. So, attention, Messieurs Furyk and Bjorn: best not screw this up.