ATLANTA – This wasn’t some nip/tuck job. The U.S. Ryder Cup task force didn’t set out to tinker around the edges in the hopes that all the American side needed was a nudge in the right direction to change it’s competitive misfortunes.
This was billed as a complete overhaul, an outright demolition deal to right a ship that’s been adrift for the better part of two decades.
Out with the old process of cronyism, in with a new vision designed to build a legacy and a winning formula.
The rebuilt selection process may not have been the most important part of that transformation to the players and captain, but it has certainly been the most publicized. Captain Davis Love III made his first three picks after the BMW Championship, a week later than normal, and held the last selection for Sunday night after the Tour Championship.
The 12th selection has been dubbed in most circles the "Billy Horschel pick," after the colorful Floridian won the 2014 BMW Championship, Tour Championship and FedEx Cup, yet wasn’t on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
The captain and committee members wanted the hot hand, and waiting until the 11th hour was the best way to assure that. This week’s finale was meant to be, essentially, a 72-hole, one-spot qualifier for the U.S. team.
In theory, if one of the dozen Americans in the Tour Championship field who aren’t currently on the U.S. team won at East Lake, his Sunday celebration would include a trophy, a big check (maybe two depending on his FedEx Cup fortunes) and a ticket to Hazeltine.
That plan began to fray at the edges, however, when just three of those potential picks – Bubba Watson, Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger – were invited up to Hazeltine on Monday for a private workout.
Sources say a fourth player, Ryan Moore, was also invited to the practice session, but declined, citing a need to be rested for the finale. Following the logic of the Horschel rule, wouldn’t all 12 potential picks deserve an invitation?
Things became even more cloudy on Thursday as players completed their rounds at East Lake and were asked about their Ryder Cup chances.
“I think Davis knows [the last pick],” said Berger, who struggled on Day 1 to a 4-over 74. “He has a really good idea who he wants to pick and maybe if someone plays really well like Justin Thomas or myself, but I mean it’s tough to leave the No. 7 player in the world (Watson) off the team. I don’t see that happening.”
Realistically, if none of the dozen would-be Ryder Cuppers do anything special at East Lake, it stands to reason that Watson would be the default candidate, but even that scenario doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
“Davis said it's all about strategies and different things. It's not about my play. It's not about anybody's play,” said Watson, whose opening 72 left him tied for 15th in the 30-man field. “The only thing I know that he told me, and he's told everybody, is that it's about who matches up well. I don't know what that means. I don't know if it's about partners. If a guy matches up better with two people or a guy matches up better with three people.”
A day earlier, Brandt Snedeker, who was among the eight qualifiers for this year’s team, suggested a similar school of thought.
“It's not going to come down to who plays great this week. It's not going to come down to that at all,” Snedeker said. “It's going to come down to who Davis feels comfortable with and guys he trusts and wants on that team. It will be a collective effort.”
If Sunday’s big reveal wasn’t contingent on what transpires this week in Atlanta, as so many now seem to think is the case, why did we wait? Why have a task force? Why claim this time will be different?
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of match play and the unique pressures of the Ryder Cup will tell you the key to pairing players is chemistry. Forget about who plays what brand of golf ball or a certain style of play; the important part is to find a duo that can weather the inevitable hard times and move on.
Perhaps Love already has his 12th man earmarked for next week based on that type of chemistry and the pretense of this week’s drama is just a chance to cast an illusion, but then why invite any of the potential picks to Hazeltine on Monday?
In an odd way, sending those three to Hazeltine was counterproductive, if not for the Ryder Cup then perhaps for the players who could have probably gone without the added pressure.
“It definitely makes you want to be there a little more, which makes your expectations a little higher for this week knowing I have to play really, really well,” Berger said.
Thomas, who opened with a 68 on Thursday and is tied for seventh place, has attended three Ryder Cups as a spectator but was taken back by how much this week’s trip impacted him.
“I really wanted to play. I couldn’t want to play any more, but that pretty much made me want to play even more,” Thomas said. “To be in there and playing the golf course and just playing with the guys, whether they end up being my teammates or not, they're all friends of mine. It was pretty cool.”
As for the players who didn’t get the practice session invitation, that could have also sent the wrong message, as evidenced by Kevin Kisner’s response when he was asked if he was offended that he’d not gotten the chance. “Probably, yeah,” he replied.
Pre-Ryder Cup criticism often rings hollow because it’s the outcome that will ultimately decide who made the right moves. But if the changes – the changes the players and captains lobbied for – weren’t needed, weren’t taken advantage of, then what was it all for?