Steve Stricker is about as unpredictable as a perfect fall day in Wisconsin.
With just a hint of autumn in the air on Wednesday, the American captain quickly got down to business.
“Let's get straight to the captain's picks,” Stricker launched. “My captain's picks are: Daniel Berger, Harris English, Tony Finau, Xander Schauffele, Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth.”
No deviation from the midwestern sensibilities that have made Stricker one of the game’s most endearing figures.
The PGA of America normally likes to make a show of these types of moments. The Ryder Cup is, after all, one of the association’s most important properties. But Stricker has no need for a hype man.
With the Ryder Cup looming in just two short weeks, it seems the right time for the world to understand where the 54-year-old father of two is coming from, and it was all there on Wednesday – a matter-of-fact decisiveness, an unwavering belief in his team’s plan and a commitment that only Stricker would make.
“My message from Day 1 has been to try to out-prepare the other team,” the captain said.
If the selection process, which was only made more complicated by the pandemic that postponed the matches a year and an unprecedented six captain’s picks, is any indication, Stricker had a clear blueprint for what he wanted from his team and never wavered from the process.
There will be those who’ll fixate on who Stricker didn’t pick, most notably Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson, but the half dozen he did select speaks volumes about what the captain wants from his side.
Of the six picks, four are Ryder Cup rookies – Berger, English, Schauffele and Scheffler – to go along with the two rookies, Collin Morikawa and Patrick Cantlay, who automatically qualified. That’s half the U.S. side at Whistling Straits with no idea what to expect, which sounds exactly like what the captain wanted.
“We have done some analysis of those rookies since 2008, and U.S. rookies are a 40-29-17 record in Ryder Cup,” said Stricker, who admitted he’s not a big stats guy but liked the historical line on rookies. “Rookies fare very well in this type of forms, and we're excited to have these rookies.”
Stricker also correctly pointed out that not all rookies are created equal. Berger clinched the winning point for Stricker’s Presidents Cup team in 2017. Scheffler was the only pick who has no team match play experience as a professional.
Which leads to Stricker’s second point of light. It’s become big fun watching how Ryder Cup captains twist a course to fit a particular team’s style in recent years. Le Golf National in 2018 was tight and lined with thick rough, which turned out to be Kryptonite for the big-hitting U.S. team. Hazeltine National in 2016 was transformed into a sprawling ballpark to give the long-hitting Americans the advantage and plenty of room to miss.
At Whistling Straits, length will again factored into the captain’s decision. Schauffele, Finau and Scheffler all rank in the top 40 this season on the PGA Tour in driving distance, but the more telling statistic among the six picks is birdies.
Four of the six Stricker picked rank inside the top 25 on Tour in birdies, with Berger just outside that number at No. 36. It’s clear the captain plans to set Whistling Straits up for a track meet. Just as clear is why he loaded up on guys who excel at that type of never-hold-back golf.
“We don't really feel like they are rookies, we are just happy to have these guys and they fit the course to a 'T',” Stricker said.
In the coming weeks, the two picks that are going to be scrutinized the most are Scheffler and, to a lesser degree, Berger. Scheffler finished 14th on the final U.S. points list, has never won a Tour event and is the only true rookie to be picked. But it doesn’t take a deep dive to see what the captain saw in the 25-year-old Texan. Scheffler was third this season in total birdies, he seemed to handle pressure well in the year’s biggest events with top-10 finishes at the PGA Championship, U.S. Open and Open Championship, and he rolled through some of Europe’s best (including Jon Rahm and Ian Poulter) on his way to a runner-up finish at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
“He showed us what he's able to do at the Match Play this year by taking down Poulter and Rahm and Jason Day. That caught our attention early on,” Stricker said. “He’s a guy who is long off the tee. His stats across the board are very solid from top to bottom, and the guy makes a lot of birdies, which should do us very well going around Whistling Straits.”
And finally, Stricker leveraged his captain’s picks for the most possible options when it comes to pairings. Picking Spieth was easy, but it also gave him a built-in pairing with Justin Thomas, while Schauffele and Cantlay have the makings of a U.S. super-duo based on their play in recent weeks. The two went 2-2-0 paired together at the 2019 Presidents Cup.
There were no real surprises on Wednesday. Stricker really doesn’t do surprises, only a well-executed game plan and a distinctly no-nonsense approach.
It was all so Stricker, or, as the captain shrugged on his way out the door, “no curveballs.”