Love plays it safe but will he be sorry?
With a figurative pin tucked behind a figurative bunker, Davis Love played for the center of the green with his four Ryder Cup captain’s picks: Choosing the smart, safe shot that shouldn’t bring bogey into play, and might mean a birdie if things go well.
What score we’ll write down won’t be known until three weeks from now, once the 39th Ryder Cup Matches have been contested at Medinah Country Club, outside Chicago. But in Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Dustin Johnson, and Brandt Snedeker, Captain Love went with the four he thought could help the most throughout the week — prior to arrival, on the course, in the team room.
Aside from selecting his vice captains and signing off on uniforms, Tuesday’s announcement was Love’s first task that will have any real impact on his 12-man team. The initial eight — Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Phil Mickelson, Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson, and Tiger Woods — were automatic qualifiers based on a two-year points system. Love’s job was to come up with four more who will serve as suitable complements and forge a unit that can win the Ryder Cup for just the second time since the Miracle at Brookline in 1999.
There were no surprises with Tuesday’s four. What’s more, there is nobody who didn’t get picked who can stand up and say they’ve been unfairly snubbed, not even Hunter Mahan. As Snedeker told me Monday at the Deutsche Bank Championship, before he knew his fate, “At the end of the day, it lies on you. I had two years to qualify. Anybody that’s got a problem with that needs to reevaluate their goals the last two years.”
It’s obvious that Love wanted to add experience, which is why he strongly hinted that the two easy choices were Furyk (seven previous Ryder Cup appearances) and Stricker (two). They’ll be able to mentor four first-timers: Bradley, Dufner, Simpson, and Snedeker. Europe, by contrast, will have just one Ryder Cup rookie (Nicolas Colsaerts).
If Furyk and Stricker were locks all along — Love said he discussed the captain’s picks with them, getting their input on the remaining two — then Johnson and Snedeker played their way onto the team with their recent form, while also bringing some qualities that could benefit the American side.
We’ve learned lots of things watching the Ryder Cup, but one stands out, at least when it comes to the final result: The team that putts better wins. Always. Snedeker is the best putter in golf right now (Stricker is up there, too), and it seems as if he has lived on the leaderboard since summer started.
He tied for third at the British Open, and has opened his playoffs by finishing second at the Barclays and sixth at TPC Boston. Compare that to Mahan, who has the strongest case of those omitted because of his two victories this year, including at the Match Play Championship, when he beat Rory McIlroy in the final. Mahan’s last five tour events: T39, MC, MC, T55, T48. Simply not good enough.
Love likes a hot player, but he also coveted Snedeker’s enthusiasm — never a bad thing to have when you’re going up against Europe’s excitable dozen.
Johnson is perfectly suited for Medinah, which will play close to 7,700 yards. He’s sixth on the PGA Tour in driving distance, and on such a long course, you need guys who can get it out there. In Bradley, Bubba, and DJ, Captain Love has three bombers in his arsenal.
The harder part — the most important part — awaits Love. Figuring out whom to pair together the first two days, and the singles order on the final day, ultimately will determine Love’s report card. Hal Sutton put Woods and Mickelson together in 2004. Bad move (18½-9½ loss for the Yanks). Paul Azinger created three four-man pods in 2008 and demanded ownership. That worked (16½-11½ US win).
It’s no secret that Woods has enjoyed partnering with Stricker and Furyk in previous team competitions, no doubt a factor in getting picked, but their success together has been much better at the Presidents Cup than at the Ryder Cup.
But because of Europe’s recent run (six wins, two losses since 1993), there’s not a single member of the US team who can claim a winning Ryder Cup record.
Right now, picking Furyk, Stricker, Johnson, and Snedeker makes the most sense. They’re solid. They’re safe. But am I the only one starting to get an uneasy feeling here?
Furyk has played on seven teams and won eight Ryder Cup matches, total. Europe, an underdog on paper once again, will know it can win. Its captain, Jose Maria Olazabal, learned from one of the best Ryder Cup figures the competition ever has known in Seve Ballesteros, and he won’t be afraid to make a difficult decision, even if it hurts a friend.
Love has surrounded himself with chummy assistant captains, and wants Michael Jordan to be visible and in the team room all week. OK. With his captain’s picks, the captain played for the middle of the green.
Sometimes it’s fun to take dead aim at a sucker pin, though.