After revealing his four picks to solidify the roster he’ll lean on later this month outside Paris, Thomas Bjorn put a confident cap on what in recent days looked like a delicate and difficult process.
“If I had written down 12 names before I started my captaincy journey,” Bjorn said, “it wouldn’t have been far away from this.”
Some might argue that’s entirely the problem.
Few Ryder Cup captains on either side of the divide have faced an easier batch of choices than the three Jim Furyk announced Tuesday in Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau. It allowed the American skipper to add a trio of weapons to his arsenal without making picks that would allow others to read into his strategy – either by who he picked or who he left at home.
Unlike Furyk, Bjorn did not have the luxury of a player already in the mix winning not once but twice after the automatic qualification window closed. Nor did he have a 14-time major champ in the midst of a renaissance or a team-room stalwart who fired a 63 on the eve of the selections.
What the burly Dane had in front of him was a hodgepodge of options: many good, but few without drawbacks. And from that group he plucked four names that made it seem as though the last few months of competition didn’t weigh very heavily, if at all.
Bjorn heaped the most effusive praise upon Sergio Garcia, perhaps because he knew that was the pick that would receive the loudest critiques. Garcia has been a shadow of himself this summer, missing the cut in all four majors while failing to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs.
Knowing he was on the outside looking in, Garcia eschewed trips to Denmark and the Czech Republic for European Tour events where he could have made Bjorn’s choice easier, like Mickelson did for Furyk Monday at TPC Boston.
“The one thing about Sergio is that he’s the heartbeat of the team,” Bjorn said. “I’ve always said this about him. It’s like a football team going without their captain, that’s what he is.”
The European squad seemed to cope just fine without its captain back in 2010, when a deeper slump relegated Garcia to vice-captain status alongside Bjorn at Celtic Manor. That was a team that included a whopping six rookies but still got the job done for captain Colin Montgomerie.
Granted, those debutants included recent PGA winner Martin Kaymer and future major champs in Rory McIlroy and Francesco Molinari.
Perhaps names like Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood and Alex Noren will soon be etched into major hardware. But Bjorn’s deference to veteran leadership with all four of his selections implies that he sees it as an area of need, leaning heavily on the elusive merits of the “team room” atmosphere.
With five rookies among eight automatic qualifiers, he felt he didn’t have enough margin to gamble with Rafael Cabrera Bello despite a strong recent run and a stout 2-0-1 record as a rookie two years ago at Hazeltine. He likewise didn’t have a spot for Matt Wallace, who closed out his third win of the year in impressive fashion Sunday at Bjorn’s home track.
Instead he went with Paul Casey, a decade removed from his last appearance but a few months after being convinced to re-join the European Tour simply for this very moment. Casey, who hasn’t cracked the top 20 since letting the Travelers Championship slip away in June, was described by Bjorn as a “no-brainer.”
And in choosing between possible power pairings, he didn’t opt to rekindle the potent duo of Rory McIlroy and Thomas Pieters. Instead he prioritized the tried-and-true combo of Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose, adding some telling comments that indicated McIlroy may have an easier time finding a new partner than Rose would have without the Swede.
“It’s a very strong partnership that has built over the years. These two guys love each other,” Bjorn said. “Justin would find it difficult to be in a Ryder Cup at this moment in time if Henrik is not there. That’s the thing that you’ve got to look at. You’ve got to look at how other players react, as well, to the players that are coming in.”
While Europe hasn’t lost on home soil in a quarter century, the American team that cruised to victory two years ago has only gotten stronger. It means that Bjorn has his work cut out for him, and he knew it before the selection window rolled around.
Outside of decisions regarding who to pair and who to bench for each session, the picks are the biggest opportunity for a captain to put his fingerprint on the outcome. Bjorn’s imprint is now clear, having sided with established veterans rather than risking even a single selection on a less-proven commodity with more short-term upside.
It’s a strategic choice that his American counterpart didn’t have to make, and one that will either be vindicated or ridiculed based on the scoreboard in three weeks’ time.