With 2016 Masters in the books, it’s a good time to take a look at how both Ryder Cup teams are shaping up. The Masters starts the serious point accumulation – double points are awarded for majors and go a long way to shaping the makeup of each team prior to the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn.
In addition, we see European and U.S. players on the big stage, and this year, saw likely members of both squads in the mix on Sunday, none highlighted more than Danny Willett and Jordan Spieth.
Let’s start with the potential U.S. team, which perhaps because of a tweaked points system or because of consistent play has led to a solid eight. Note: When points close on Sunday, August 28, the top eight will earn automatic spots on the team.
That's a long way off, but if points were to close today, the top eight would look like this:
1. Jordan Spieth
2. Dustin Johnson
3. Bubba Watson
4. Brandt Snedeker
5. Zach Johnson
6. Rickie Fowler
7. Phil Mickelson
8. J.B. Holmes
Every player occupying a spot has at least one Ryder Cup appearance, which hasn’t been the norm in recent years with loads of rookies sprinkled in amongst the usual suspects (Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Steven Stricker and Tiger Woods, when healthy). Those in the current top 8 also account for a total of 11 major championship victories.
Only one player in the current top 8 for the U.S. has not recorded a victory in the past two seasons to this point. That would be Mickelson – a five-time major champion with a remarkable 42 career PGA Tour victories and the player who has made more appearances than anyone in U.S. Ryder Cup history (10 to date).
Love is a big “Mickelson guy” and would no doubt enjoy having his on-course veteran leadership at Hazeltine. In the last several years, Mickelson has served as a mentor for guys like Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley, Fowler and Snedeker, preparing them for future Ryder Cups.
It’ll be virtually impossible for anyone to surpass Spieth in the points race. And that’s fine with Love too. Spieth’s lone Ryder Cup experience was that 16 ½- 11 ½ defeat at Gleneagles in 2014, where he had a record of 2-1-1.
With his play over the last two years in the majors, including two wins, this will be Spieth’s team.
Love has noted that Spieth, while only 22, “is a grown man. He’s experienced. He’s wise beyond his years. He’s polished and professional.” Of course, there’s no denying the fact that the eyes of the golf world are interested in how Spieth will bounce back after his collapse on the back nine at Augusta National, where he had a five-shot Masters lead with nine holes to play before finishing T2, three shots behind winner Danny Willett. Since he’s a shoo-in to make the U.S. team at this point, I don’t anticipate that letdown impacting him in a match-play setting.
Love has also opined about the importance of getting Spieth invested early and setting a tone/lead to follow for other team members, up to and including scouting trips to Hazeltine.
As for the four Captain’s Picks, Love has the likes of Patrick Reed (No. 9) – the brightest star for the U.S. in 2014 with his 3-0-1 record – rising star Brooks Koepka (10), Bill Haas (11) and Ryder Cup veterans Jason Dufner (13), Matt Kuchar (14) and Jimmy Walker (15), among a host of others who have won on Tour recently, just on the outside looking in.
All in all, Love has to be delighted with how this team is shaping up.
On the other side of the pond, European Captain Darren Clarke has to be feeling confident too. Danny Willett captured the Masters on Sunday – the first European to do so since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999. In all, seven European players occupied the top-10 in the final Masters standings, including Ryder Cup stalwarts Lee Westwood (T4) and Rory McIlroy (T10). (Note: England’s Paul Casey, T4 at the Masters, is not currently eligible for the Ryder Cup, as he’s not a European Tour member. He previously played on three European Ryder Cup teams.).
"Hope they are all in the same form in September in Hazeltine," Clarke told the Associated Press this week. "Any time you see seven Europeans in the top 10 at a major, that's got to be a hugely positive step. Especially in the year of the Ryder Cup."
Unlike the U.S. team, there are nine automatic spots up for grabs on the European side. Clarke will complete his team with three Captain’s Picks.
The top four players qualify for the European team off the European Points List, while the top five qualify off the World Points List (if not already qualified from the European List). Here’s how the automatic nine would look if points closed today:
Of that nine, five are would-be Ryder Cup rookies in Willett, Fitzpatrick, Sullivan, Cabrera-Bello and Pieters. McIlroy, Stenson, Rose and Garcia, however, bring loads of “winning Ryder Cup experience” – something that can’t be said about anyone on the U.S. side. The U.S. does have the edge in major victories, 11-6.
Regarding potential Captain’s Picks, it’s likely that the names Martin Kaymer, Jamie Donaldson, Graeme McDowell, Chris Wood, Victor Dubuisson, Bernd Wiesberger and the wild card of all wild cards, Ian Poulter, are the ones dancing in Clarke’s head at the moment. If today were the day to make the picks, it would be difficult for Clarke to go wrong picking any three from that group.
On paper, it would appear the U.S. is the stronger team at this point in time.
As we’ve seen through the years, however, an assessment like that typically isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
The Ryder Cup will be decided, passionately by both sides, inside the ropes at Hazeltine with the visiting team looking to sustain its dominance and the home team looking to definitively bury what’s been an ugly slump.