Ryder Cup Countdown: Top Storylines 60 Days Out
The 43rd edition of the Ryder Cup is quickly approaching as we are now just 60 days from the matches at Whistling Straits. The anticipation is growing too, especially since it’s been three years since the last playing of the biennial competition just outside Paris.
Although we’re inside two months, there is still much left to decide on both U.S. captain Steve Stricker’s team and European captain Pádraig Harrington’s team. With that in mind, here are six storylines to watch:
Only five events remain for Americans
It’s getting down to the nitty gritty. There are five events left for Americans to use to qualify for the Ryder Cup.
After the 3M Open in Minnesota is the Olympic Men’s Golf Competition, which will not count toward Ryder Cup points. There will not be a PGA Tour event that same week. The four remaining events are the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, Wyndham Championship and the PGA TOUR’s first two Playoff events, The Northern Trust and the BMW Championship.
The top six qualifiers will make the team. Captain Stricker will make his six selections a week later, following the end of the Tour Championship.
As has been the case many times over the past couple decades, there is a lot of movement in the standings late in the season. Someone from off the radar often gets hot and makes a late run. Someone who is considered to be safe sometimes doesn’t play so well. Both of those things will likely happen again here over the next few weeks.
The home crowds will obviously be cheering on the Americans, but as far as course knowledge, the 2015 PGA Championship was played at Whistling Straits, and players from both teams were at the event that was won by Australian Jason Day. Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Tony Finau, Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas all finished inside the top 20 finishers that week.
Rory McIlroy was the highest European finisher among those expected to make this year’s team and he was 17th place. Tyrrell Hatton tied for 25th and Paul Casey tied for 30th.
“I think it will be a great venue for the Ryder Cup.” Harrington said. “It's a dramatic golf course. We need that in the Ryder Cup.
“The Ryder Cup is probably the most exciting golf event in the game – one of the biggest sporting events but certainly the most exciting in golf. You need a dramatic golf course that lends itself to spectacular play, as well as some disastrous play. That's what match play is about.”
Scouting report on Viktor Hovland
Rory McIlroy wouldn’t mind being paired with Viktor Hovland at the Ryder Cup this year. That’s all you really need to know about the 23-year-old Norwegian.
“If he was trying to choose a partner, I’d put my hand up and like to guide him around,” McIlroy said last week at The Open at Royal St. George’s.
What’s not to like? Hovland is the second-highest ranked (No. 11) European in the world, only behind World Number One Jon Rahm. He’s ranked sixth on the PGA TOUR in strokes gained: off-the-tee, ninth in strokes gained: tee-to-green and ninth in strokes gained: total. He’s also third on the tour in birdie average per round and seventh in scoring average.
Hovland just wrapped up his third professional victory a couple weeks ago in Germany at the BMW International Open. He tied for 12th place last week at The Open.
“Viktor is going to be an instrumental player for the European team for a long time to come,” McIlroy said. “Having someone like him on the European team can only help.”
Which team does Whistling Straits favor?
A golf course in the Ryder Cup should always tend to favor the home team, and this year is no different. The host captain has input into the setup ahead of Ryder Cup week and can make sure the layout is tweaked to his liking. That’ll always be an advantage.
Three years ago, at Le Golf National, then-European captain Thomas Bjørn knew that his team was much more accurate off the tee than the Americans. So, he made sure that the fairways were tighter in spots where the U.S. would likely land the ball. It worked as the Europeans dominated, winning17 ½ to 10 ½.
This time, however, both Stricker and Harrington have noted that Whistling Straits, a link-style beauty which sits along two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, is not as easily able to be poked and prodded. What you see is what you get.
“This is a much more natural golf course,” Harrington said two years ago. “I'm interested to see down the road what Steve has in store but doesn't look like you can do a lot with this golf course. As much as it was obviously designed and built there, it looks like it's just in a natural setting all its life and it's going to present its way. Even the weather could be very changeable the week of the Ryder Cup.”
Length is the only major adjustable feature that Stricker has to work with. While both teams will hit the ball plenty far, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Whistling Straits play long all three days.
Westwood continues to amaze
Lee Westwood, at 48, is poised to make his 11th Ryder Cup team, tying Sir Nick Faldo for the most starts in European team history. What’s perhaps more impressive is that Westwood did not make the team three years ago outside Paris and was one of Captain Bjørn’s vice captains.
Since then, the Englishman has worked himself back into the world’s Top 30, winning the first Rolex Series event of 2020, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and finishing the season as the European Tour’s Number One player by winning the Race to Dubai He also had a chance to win both the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players in consecutive weeks earlier this year on the PGA TOUR. Although he ended up finishing second both times, it showed how far Westwood had come in his pursuit of regaining form that made him one of the world’s best for more than two decades.
During Westwood’s time on Team Europe, he has enjoyed great success, collecting a 20-18-6 career record and ending up on the winning side seven of the ten times against the U.S.
“It’s a bonus for me that Lee has played his way into the team because you need leaders in your team,” Harrington said at the PGA Championship. “It’s incredibly important to have a leader that people will look up to. What he says in the locker room will command respect.
“From my perspective I will be asking more of Lee than just golf.”
Stricker’s captain’s selections will be difficult
This is undoubtedly one of the least-favorite tasks that a Ryder Cup captain has to do during his tenure; call someone deserving and tell him he’s not going to be on the team. In this case, having six selections is both a blessing and a curse.
The best part of having so many picks is that Stricker can mould his team into exactly what he’s looking for. It’s completely on him. He can pick players who partner perfectly with others already on the team and, with it, he can also choose personalities that he most wants in his team room.
“Because we have more picks, I think in my opinion, we have the ability to create teams that we want to create for cohesiveness,” Stricker said at the PGA Championship.
But this year there are so many deserving options. Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele currently occupy the top six positions. Those six will be on the team, even if one happens to falter over the next month. Jordan Spieth is seventh. He’ll likely be on the team because of current form.
The next six in order are Patrick Reed, Harris English, Patrick Cantlay, Daniel Berger, Tony Finau and Webb Simpson. At least one of those names will be on the outside looking in.
Then there’s Phil Mickelson, who made history when he became the oldest Major Championship winner after his PGA Championship victory at Kiawah Island. It’ll be difficult for Stricker to look the legend in the face and tell him he’s not on the team during a year when Mickelson won the major championship that the PGA runs.
Europe still has impressive veteran leadership
While Hovland will be one of the impressive rookies on the European team, there still will be solid veterans to lean on for Captain Harrington.
Rory McIlroy (five appearances), Paul Casey (four) and Lee Westwood (ten) are virtually assured of making the team. With a combined 19 Ryder Cup appearances, those three will have the most wisdom to impart upon the younger players. They’ve seen it all during their times and they’ve also won a lot of matches over the years.
Mix them with a dose of world-class players like Hovland, Jon Rahm, Tyrrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood and there are the makings of a solid nucleus.
Harrington also will have three captain’s picks to round out his team. Smart money says that he’ll end up selecting at least two veterans, and perhaps could even pick veterans with all three spots. In that pool he has the likes of Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, all three of whom are ranked inside the top 52 in the world.