With the automatic qualifiers set and the captains ready to fill-out their teams tonight, I thought I’d break-down the possible captains picks for both sides. While obviously not as prestigious as the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup still is one of the few opportunities to observe and comment on team construction in golf. The main things I’m looking for when evaluating golfers in this team setting is simply overall level of play. Match play is different in a number of ways from stroke play tournaments, but one factor that’s often overlooked is that to win a stroke play tournament golfers have to perform much better than normal. To win, you have to be capable of having everything click one weekend and be able to handle pressure of closing. However, to win a match play match, it’s often enough to just play consistent good golf. This factors into the selection process; captains should be much more interested in looking at the full view of how each golfer has performed over the season (good scoring average, few missed cuts, top 10s, etc.), rather than focusing on tournaments won or performance at major championships.
United States Team
The top eight Americans in adjusted scoring average over the last 52 weeks qualified for the Presidents Cup yesterday (Spieth, Furyk, D.Johnson, Bubba, Kuchar, Reed, Fowler, and Z.Johnson). Jimmy Walker (20th best) and Chris Kirk (37th best) joined them. Walker’s been playing poorly for months, but managed to finish 3rd in the standings on the strength of his five Tour wins during the qualification period. Kirk earned the last spot despite missing the summer due to injury; he’s won three times during the past two years.
To fill out the team, Brooks Koepka and Brandt Snedeker are the next two best Americans in adjusted scoring average over the last year. Despite playing like one of the ten best Americans, Koepka finished only 20th in qualifying because the PGA Tour has chosen to ignore results from non-PGA Tour events. While splitting time on the European Tour in 2014, Koepka racked up a win, two 3rds, and another top 10. Koepka is a pretty obvious selection for me. Not only has his performance warranted the pick, but his bomber style is perfectly suited for the four-ball portion and it will be good to get him acclimated to the team experience ahead of a likely berth on next year’s Ryder Cup squad.
Snedeker narrowly missed qualifying on points – finishing 12th largely because of his struggles in 2014. However, if you look at his last five seasons below, it’s pretty obvious that his struggles with the putter caused his down year. His other four seasons have all been played at a top 25 level. With his putting squared away this year, I think he’s definitely the next best option beyond Koepka. While guys like Robert Streb may have done more this year and Phil Mickelson has the name recognition, Snedeker’s combination of good play this season and a track record of past great seasons stands out.
For me, selecting Phil Mickelson would be ridiculous. His overall record of performance is no better over the past season or two than a dozen other Americans receiving no consideration like Kevin Na or Ryan Palmer. Even worse, he’s only had two great performances (2014 PGA Championship and 2015 Masters) since winning The Open in 2013. This pick would be on legacy only, but it’s not like Mickelson has a Poulter-esque team match play record to lean back on. Mickelson’s won just 50% of the possible points in his Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup career. I understand there’s pressure to pick Phil (he hasn’t missed a US team event since 1993), but judging him objectively he doesn’t come close to deserving a spot.
Whether Jay Haas would pick Bill Haas has been the big story recently, with Bill having several chances to earn his way on from the 11th spot in the standings. Unfortunately for Jay, Bill didn’t play anywhere near well enough in his last two starts. For me, Bill Haas isn’t deserving of a pick. You won’t find anyone who advocated more strenuously for Bill’s inclusion in last year’s Ryder Cup team. His performance last year was clearly great; I had him ranked as one of the twenty best golfers in the world a year ago. However, despite a win in 2015, his season just hasn’t been as good as 2014 judged by overall scoring average. This pick would be a mix of nepotism and a make-up call for Webb Simpson’s bamboozling of Tom Watson last year. Neither is a good look for Jay Haas with plenty of other candidates who have done as much or more than Haas this year.
Robert Streb was probably in the conversation a few weeks ago because his overall play certainly deserved a selection, but he was probably always going to have to earn his way on this team and he didn’t.
I’ve seen Billy Horschel’s name mentioned, often accompanied by a list of intangible factors backing his selection. The problem is that his overall level of play hasn’t been good enough to earn his way on these US teams. He got hot and won the FedEx Cup last year, but he has seven top 10s in 54 events over the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons and his adjusted scoring average ranks 35th among Americans in the last 52 weeks. Those results are just too erratic to know what you’re going to get in Korea.
Picks: Brooks Koepka and Brandt Snedeker
The International Team qualified their five clearly superior golfers – Day, Matsuyama, Oosthuizen, Grace, and Scott – easily. Beyond those five, the performances of the remaining five qualifiers have fluctuated dramatically in the past year. Charl Schwartzel would’ve been one of those clearly superior golfers in the past, but his form has been wildly inconsistent over the past two years. Anirban Lahiri qualified, deservingly; he’s had a handful of truly stand-out tournaments mixed with a lot of crap this year. Danny Lee’s been one of the break-out guys on Tour this summer. Marc Leishman’s been a steady above-average Tour pro over his career. Thongchai Jaidee has mostly busted in his US events this year, but has some high finishes elsewhere.
I think as many as half a dozen golfers are solid contenders for picks, but I’d pick two guys who are off the radar for most PGA Tour fans – Ben An and Emiliano Grillo. Both are European Tour based and very young, but they rank 6th and 7th in adjusted scoring average over the past year. An was tearing up the European Tour earlier this year, winning their flagship event at the BMW PGA Championship in May. His world ranking is depressed from where it should be because he was on the European minor league tour last season where it’s difficult to earn points even for high finishes. Grillo performed well in two US appearances this summer (Barbasol and Canadian). He’s been very consistent (only three missed cuts in the last year), which I’d prefer over more boom and bust golfers if I were captain.
The big omission here is probably Steven Bowditch. He just missed qualifying in 11th place and has two PGA Tour wins in the last two years, so why isn’t he an obvious pick? In short, he’s just way too inconsistent. After winning the Texas Open in 2014, he missed six of his next eights cuts. This year, he started out missing seven of nine cuts. He’s played better this summer, but he’s alternated good tournaments with bad for the last two months. In short, you don’t know whether you’re going to get a golfer who at his best deserves a spot on the team, but at his worst is a 4&3 loss waiting to happen.
Picks: Emiliano Grillo and Ben An