Davis Love III looks like neither Billy Beane nor Brad Pitt, the actor who played the trailblazing baseball executive in the 2011 movie “Moneyball,” but the American Ryder Cup captain sounded like a man in search of golf’s version of on-base percentage on Monday.
On-base percentage, or OBP, was Beane’s magic statistical bullet in the film, which was based on the Oakland Athletics success in the early 2000s despite a small-market budget.
It seems Love and the PGA of America are sparing no expense in their quest to make the United States relevant in the biennial matches that have gone Europe’s way in eight out of last 10 meetings.
“You know, we've run a lot of stats, numbers and looked at how to set up the golf course and how do we match up and what their team is like and what our team is like,” Love said on Monday after his eight automatic qualifiers had been set.
Love hired Scouts Inc. to crunch the numbers for him heading into next month’s matches, and although he was reluctant to give specifics one can probably figure out what the captain’s OBP might be as he inches closer to making his captain’s picks.
Love, unlike his Continent counterpart Darren Clarke, has the advantage of experience, with just a single rookie among his qualifiers (Brooks Koepka), so there probably won’t be a lot of debate over whether he needs to make a veteran one of his picks.
He also enjoys a solid balance of power (Dustin Johnson and Koepka) and precision (Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson), which will likely make the final four selections (three picks will be made on Sept. 12 and the final player will be named on Sept. 25) a combination of specific performances and individual preferences.
Two statistics are most often cited in these situations – final-round scoring average and birdie average.
Final-round scoring average is often applied to these picks because playing the Ryder Cup is akin to the pressure a player faces on Sunday with a title on the line, but that pressure is applied from the opening hole onward.
Among the leading candidates for a pick, Jim Furyk leads the field on this front at 18th on the PGA Tour in final-round scoring, followed by Bubba Watson (19th), Rickie Fowler (21st), Matt Kuchar (55th), J.B. Holmes (83rd), Scott Piercy (119th) and Bill Haas (128th).
Birdie average, however, paints a vastly different picture, with Holmes (seventh) leading the way, followed by Kuchar (14th), Watson (28th), Fowler (44th), Piercy (84th), Furyk (177th) and Haas (183rd).
Hazeltine National, site of this year’s matches, is going to be an exceedingly long layout (7,628 yards), which would, in theory, give long hitters like Watson and Holmes an advantage, but on Monday Love – whose reputation as a “player’s captain” is why he was brought back for a second turn – didn’t seem interested in the “horses for courses” philosophy.
“If my team needs a quarterback and I draft a running back, they are going to be mad at me,” Love said. “I have to make sure if they say, we want this guy, that he pairs well with this other guy, that we pick that guy. I can't say it enough: It's their team.”
Perhaps, but the decision, and the inevitable post-match critique, will fall to Love – it’s the price of sliding behind the wheel of Team USA’s golf cart. And it’s why Love hasn’t left a single Pro V1 unturned in his pursuit of the best team.
Every scrap of information, every opinion, every conceivable vantage point has been studied. It’s why the PGA created a task force and overhauled the selection process. And why Love told anyone who will listen that his picks, like everything else, will be a team decision.
“The statisticians are going to help us with this, but those eight players on our team and the four assistant captains, they are pretty good golfers,” Love said. “They know what's going on. They know the players. They know who they want to play with.”
The importance of getting the captain’s picks right is always relative to the outcome, but consider that in 2012 when the Continent rallied to win by a point, Europe’s two picks won 5 points out of a possible eight (a 62 percent winning clip); while the four American picks won 6 points out of a possible 14 (43 percent).
So forgive Love if he sounded a little like Beane on Monday as he mulled his potential picks and provided a glimpse into what has become a surprisingly scientific process.
“I think there's going to be two obvious picks and there's going to be two we're going to have to waffle about a little bit,” he said, “and the stats will help us narrow that down.”