U.S. hopes minor Ryder Cup tweaks yield major results


PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Jim Furyk is used to starting his year at Pebble Beach, but Wednesday felt like the first day of school.

Catching up. Meeting newcomers. Shaking hands. Receiving congratulations.

“I felt like I was running for mayor,” he said.

It’s his new normal as U.S. Ryder Cup captain.

The good vibes from the Americans’ blowout last fall at Hazeltine are still evident as Furyk passes the one-month checkpoint of his captaincy. Even with the matches 19 months away, the questions surrounding the U.S. team are less about its recent futility and more about whether this is the start of a dominant run.

Furyk uses many of the same buzzwords as his predecessor, Davis Love III – process, system, program, succession – but listening to him speak Wednesday at Pebble Beach, you can’t help but get the sense that Team USA finally knows what it’s doing.

After an era of one-off captains, Furyk is following the blueprint left for him. Which is smart. The system works. They have proof. But his two minor tweaks to the selection process, announced Wednesday, have put the Americans in an even stronger position as they attempt to end a 25-year drought overseas.

The first is a seemingly small change to the points structure. Last year, the majors were worth double points, with players receiving two points for every $1,000 earned at the Grand Slam events. With total purses skyrocketing (the U.S. Open now offers a record $12 million), players can make significant jumps in the standings just by finishing in the top 10.

Here’s an example: Daniel Summerhays finished third at last year’s PGA. He earned $680,000, or 1,360 Ryder Cup points. Daniel Berger won the FedEx St. Jude Classic. He earned $1,116,000, but because it was a regular Tour event, it translated to only 1,116 Ryder Cup points – or 244 less than Summerhays.

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Which performance was more impressive, a third at a major or a Tour title?

“I really value winning,” Furyk said. “I want the guys that hit shots down the stretch, that have the guts, the fortitude, the game to win golf tournaments.

The second change was the timing of the Ryder Cup picks.

No longer will the decision come down to the last minute, with an announcement after the Tour Championship. In 2018, Furyk will name three of his captain’s picks after the Dell Technologies Championship in Boston, then save the “hot-hand pick” for after the BMW, the third FedEx Cup playoff event.

Sure, it allows the final selection two weeks to prepare for the Ryder Cup, but it also gives him a chance to bond with his new teammates.

Before making the decision, Furyk solicited opinions from several team members, including Jordan Spieth.

“I think the changes are well done,” Spieth said. “I think they’re just going to be helpful going forward.” 

Moving the deadline a week earlier eliminates some of the playoff awkwardness, with players unsure of where they stood, with each week feeling like an audition. The weekly melodrama produced chuckles from players across the pond, frustration from those already on the team, and middling golf from those vying for the final spot.

Ultimately, the process worked, and the right player emerged, with Ryan Moore losing in a playoff at the Tour Championship, then going 2-1 in his debut at Hazeltine. But it won’t be repeated, not with an away Ryder Cup.

“It’s obvious that we can’t wait until after the Tour Championship to make a pick,” Furyk said. “We have passports, travel to Europe, and I feel like the timing, we probably want to get it done a little earlier and not put those guys through that at the Tour Championship again.

“I think it’s wise, as well, for the captains to be discussing pairings the night before we leave, rather than who our next captain’s pick is going to be.”

There’s some risk involved here. There’s a chance now that the hottest player will be left home. Would Moore have been taken with the final pick if the decision had been made after the BMW, not the Tour Championship? Probably not. But one of Furyk’s tasks is to put his players in the best position to succeed, and this eliminates an unnecessary distraction. Players will have ample opportunity – two years – to make a statement to the committee.

PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua said small changes such as these can be expected every two years. They’re not starting over anymore. They’re evolving.

“No matter how well you play or how good things seem, there’s always ways to improve,” Furyk said. “We have got things back on the rails and headed in the right direction. But the idea is to grow, to get better.

“To go back and re-invent the wheel, to break everything down and start over is not the way to go. But to keep building on the momentum we have right now is the goal.”

And that starts with these two moves. The Americans haven’t won on foreign soil since 1993, but thanks to Furyk and Co., they’ve never had a better chance to reverse the trend.