Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

Ryder Cup Thoughts

US Captain Tom Watson is set to announce his three selections to round out the US team tonight, while European Captain Paul McGinley made his selections this morning (Lee Westwood, Stephen Gallacher, and Ian Poulter) – a day after the nine automatic European spots were decided. I’m going to review the possible American selections and say who I think should be picked, and then I’ll talk some about the European team and McGinley’s picks.

American Prospects:

Selecting captain’s picks for the Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup is a unique responsibility in golf. Evaluating which players are best is essential for coaches or front offices in the team sports to such a degree that player evaluation is considered one of the most important traits to be hired for a coaching or front office job. In golf there’s no impetus to correctly evaluate who is better than someone else. Certainly the PGA of America and European Tour don’t consider whether a potential captain knows how to evaluate who are the best twelve golfers for their teams. Combine that lack of interest finding someone to evaluate who are the better players with the sheer randomness of 28 golf matches that make up the Ryder Cup, and there’s no accountability in the selection process.

In picking Ryder Cup players the most important factor by far is how good they are at golf. There is stuff that matters on the boundaries – ability to respond under pressure, attitude/showing up in shape and ready to play, demeanor on the course and in the clubhouse, perhaps how their game fits with other players – but what really matters is picking the players who have shown over hundreds of rounds that they’re the best at golf. The margins between guys up for captains picks are narrow (no more than half a stroke/round really), but large enough to matter in the context of hoisting the trophy on Sunday.

Based on the US having around half the top 25 players in the world, the cut-off for a Ryder Cup pick is being around the 25th best player in the world. In parenthesis is the current rank in my ratings among healthy Americans. The nine automatic picks rank 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, and 26th.

Keegan Bradley (5th)

Everyone seems to agree Keegan is certain to be a captain’s pick because not only is he one of the best available Americans, but he also played great along with Phil in the 2012 Ryder Cup and 2013 Presidents Cup (6.5 points from 7 matches). That alone would be a stupid reason to pick him, but he’s the best American left by my rankings who’s also healthy, so he’s a fairly easy selection – whether he pairs with Phil again or not.

Hunter Mahan (11th)

There’s a time where Mahan would’ve been an easy pick here – he was one of the best in the game between 2008-2011 – but he’s definitely regressed from that level. His win last week definitely put him in the mix for a pick, but his game has been a mess most of the season. I’m guessing he’ll be picked because of Ryder Cup experience and his good recent play, but he’s step down in talent from other guys available. He wouldn’t be a bad pick, more of a missed opportunity for someone better.

Brandt Snedeker (14th)

Snedeker’s run from 2011 to 2013 where he won four times, took home the FedEx Cup, finished top ten 19 more times, and made the US teams in 2012 and 2013 has to seem like a long time ago. He rode a vastly improved long game in those seasons, but that’s completely disappeared this year. He’s had three top tens this year and has even looked lost with his putter – his one elite skill. He’d be a poor selection in terms of overall ability and recent play.

Chris Kirk (13th)

Chris Kirk really put his name in the running with his victory yesterday, but all along this season he’s been consistently pretty good (17th in the FedEx standings coming into this week). Kirk has been reliably a top 50 player in the world over the past few seasons, but there are ten other Americans with similar talent to him who would all be equally as a good in the Ryder Cup. For me, Kirk just isn’t good enough to get a pick. That he won yesterday isn’t that important for me. My work has shown “form” and recent play carries over to a small degree between weeks, but the Ryder Cup is in four weeks. There’s no guarantee that Kirk will still be playing well after two more tournaments and a week off.

Billy Horschel (22nd)

Horschel’s another guy who at least has put his name in the mix based on his play this week. He was always expected to play well based on his NCAA career, but never really put it together due to injuries. He emerged with a win last year largely because he putted way above his head for six months (something he acknowledged in an interview yesterday), but has established himself as a solid pro on the edge of the top 50 guys in the world. As such, he’d be a bad Ryder Cup pick. I’m not really in the position to judge intangibles either, but Horschel is a known hot-head on course and seems like an easy pick for the most likely guy to blow-up mid-round and lose 7&6 (non-Kevin Na of course).

Ryan Moore (15th)

Moore’s season has been very interesting. He made his way on Tour up until 2013 largely on the strength of his putting – that was his elite skill. He’s short off the tee, but good enough with his irons to be a consistent top 50 guy, but never better. He’s lost that putting ability the past two seasons – long enough that I think it’s a sign that he’s changed something (allocation of practice time would be my guess) and isn’t an elite putter any more. He’s made up for that with dramatically improved iron play this year. He’s hitting more greens and generating a lot more birdie chances, and his overall game has improved so much that he’s having his best season ever. He’s definitely good enough that he wouldn’t be a bad pick, but I’m not sure how seriously he’s being considered after playing poorly the past two weeks.

Brendon Todd (23rd)

Between turning pro in 2007 and 2012, Todd was one of the worst players to play on the PGA Tour. In his two years with a PGA Tour card (2009 & 2012) he was pretty much the worst player tee to green on Tour, but had developed into a very good putter by 2012. Last year he played great on the Tour – improving tee to green and keeping up the fantastic putting. This year has been more of the same. He’s already one of the ten best putters on Tour and his overall game is finally good enough that he’s a top 50 or so player in the world. He hasn’t shown the consistent play that should be required of a Ryder Cupper however. He has less of a track record than Kirk. I think he’d be the worst pick of the guys under consideration.

Bill Haas (4th)

I’ve touted Haas all season because he’s been consistently very good. He hasn’t missed a cut since last season, but more importantly he has a track record (4/5 last seasons in the top 25 on Tour) of being very good. In my mind, if you’re looking for one guy on this list to show up in Scotland and give you five good rounds of golf, Haas is the most likely to do it. He doesn’t have wins this year, but he has five in the previous four seasons – so you can’t ding him for “not knowing how to win”. He also has the bonus of playing in the Presidents Cup in 2011 and 2013. Again though, the main reason to pick him is because he’s one of the three best Americans left in terms of talent. He’s proven that over the last five years.

Webb Simpson (7th)

Webb’s another clear selection for me. His track record is four straight seasons of elite level golf since his emergence in 2011. He’s played on three straight US teams in these events. There’s a slight concern that he’s relied a little more on outlier level putting this year, but he’s still been very good.

My Picks: Webb Simpson, Bill Haas, Keegan Bradley

All three are fairly easy picks as the three best Americans left healthy in terms of my rankings. All three have positive US team experience, and in terms of intangibles they aren’t risky picks at all. Watson might find a reason to leave Haas or Webb off in favor of someone else, but these three are the best guys available.

Watson’s Picks: Keegan Bradley and two of Webb Simpson, Hunter Mahan, Chris Kirk

The Europeans:

The automatic picks hit on pretty much everyone deserving of a spot on the team on merit. Thomas Bjorn is probably the weak link, but I have him right on the periphery of the team in terms of ability. McGinley was in a bit of a bind with his captain’s pick though. Poulter, Westwood, and Luke Donald have all been some of the best in the world in recent seasons and have Ryder Cup experience, but all three have been way below expectations this year. McGinley brought Poulter – because who wouldn’t after 2012 – and Westwood rather than Donald, which isn’t so much an error as it is relying on guys who have delivered in the past.

I feel for Donald being left off as he’s one of the twelve best Euros by my ratings. My numbers consider recent play in the context of prior performances, so it sees Donald playing below expectations for the last two years, but also sees that he was one of the best in the world in 2011-12. His long game has been a disaster this year (way below 2011-2012), so I think there’s legitimate concern he’s not anything like that guy anymore. There’s similar concerns with Westwood; his long game hasn’t been anything like it was in recent years and he’s getting to the age where driving and iron play start to collapse. I’m guessing this will be his last Ryder Cup.

As for Poulter, I have him rated as one of the twelve best guys and he’s a guy you can count on showing up in form ready to play. I’m not sure how much stock I put in his 12-3 lifetime record, but he definitely takes the event seriously and handles the pressure. This was as obvious a pick as any.

I have Gallacher ranked 18th among the Euros, making him a pretty poor pick; he’s one of the peripheral guys who isn’t that good in the Nicolas Colsaerts 2012/Oliver Wilson 2008 mold. McGinley must’ve had some sympathy seeing as he came within one spot of qualifying on Sunday, but there were half a dozen alternatives. I would’ve liked to see Francesco Molinari picked because he’s clearly one of the twelve best Europeans and has some experience at the Ryder Cup. Molinari’s just been better across the board compared to Gallacher. I’d rather have him than any of the guys McGinley actually picked.

Overall, the Europeans have more elite guys (Rory, Sergio, Justin Rose), but less depth (I rate at least Dubuisson, Donaldson, Bjorn, and Gallacher below everyone likely to be on the US team besides Patrick Reed). That will be mitigated by the home continent advantage so the Euros are still the favorites.


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