By the time Steve Stricker makes his Ryder Cup captain’s picks after next week’s Tour Championship, the COVID-compromised qualification process to determine his troops will have lasted longer than the Siege of Leningrad—924 days to be exact. But Stricker will be announcing more than just six additional names on his roster. His choices will reveal whether the U.S. is investing in its future stars or remains hostage to a faded legend who isn’t eager to cede center stage.
Five players are already guaranteed places on the team to face Europe next month at Whistling Straits: Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas. The last automatic qualifier is determined Sunday after the BMW Championship. That’s currently Tony Finau, but might become Patrick Cantlay. Both are likely locks for Stricker’s squad, as are two players just beyond automatic slots: Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth.
Which means skipper Stricker is really down to three picks. The decisions he makes will indicate the extent to which the buddy system that installed him still holds sway over Team U.S.A.
You’d have to search hard to find a negative sentiment about Stricker. He’s a consummate professional and unfailingly courteous. Since he was announced as captain 30 months ago, there have been whispers that he’s too nice for the job, which is to fundamentally misunderstand the prevailing dynamic of the U.S. team. Amiability is not an impediment to being captain; it’s a requirement.
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It has been since Tom Watson’s tumultuous tenure in 2014. Watson was 65 and decidedly old school in his attitude to patriotism and performance. Seeing the Stars and Stripes raised was all the motivation a man should need. He wasn’t going to hug them and reassure them about how special they were, nor let them choose with whom they played and how often.
The fallout from that U.S. defeat and Phil Mickelson’s press conference coup led to the establishment of the oft-mocked task force. On paper, the task force was an effort to crowdsource the captaincy, and every skipper appointed since sat on that panel. In reality, it created a rotating door on the locker room, as every exiting captain—winner or loser—is recycled by his successor. Davis Love III had Jim Furyk and Stricker as vice-captains in 2016. Furyk’s deputies in ’18 included Love and Stricker. No prizes for guessing two names on Stricker’s backroom team this year. The loyalty of task force members to their own is what makes Mickelson’s role a compelling subplot this week. After all, this was Phil’s task force, oversubscribed with people who hold Mickelson in high regard, not least his ownself.
Mickelson has made modest noises about being undeserving of a spot on Stricker’s team. He said similar things in ’18. He didn’t mean it then and he doesn’t mean it now. Furyk picked Mickelson and he lost both sessions he played. There are reasons why Stricker might do as his successor did.
Mickelson won a major in 2021, and not just any major but one owned by the guys who own the Ryder Cup. He has a wealth of experience, having played every Cup since 1995. The counter arguments—his PGA Championship victory was a supernova moment in an otherwise dark sky over recent years, and his experience is mostly of losing (18 wins from 47 matches)—might not be persuasive for Stricker.
Team U.S.A. has one guaranteed rookie (Morikawa) and will probably have another two in Schauffele and Cantlay. More potential first-timers have made a case for selection: Harris English, Daniel Berger, Scottie Scheffler, Billy Horschel, Jason Kokrak, Sam Burns and Kevin Kisner. A couple of credible veterans are in the mix too, with Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson. All of the aforementioned placed ahead of Mickelson in the qualification standings. But those standings are irrelevant once the final putt falls at the BMW Championship, and that’s when Stricker starts to look at the intangibles.
Mickelson is a binding agent in the team room, a mentor to some of the younger players and a gleeful tormentor of them in friendly money matches. His experience in the cauldron of the Ryder Cup will aid nervous teammates. But none of those attributes requires his clubs. Mickelson would be an excellent vice-captain and Stricker should name him to that position soon after the automatic qualifiers are finalized, thereby removing him from the pool of potential picks in a respectful manner.
The U.S. captain has been presented with circumstances that he needs to exploit. While Tiger Woods is recuperating, other mainstays of the squad—Zach Johnson, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar—are, like Mickelson, struggling for form. Now is the moment for Stricker to make an unapologetic and defensible all-in bet on the next generation of young, hungry guys eager to prove their worth.
If Stricker announces Mickelson’s name for anything other than a backroom position, it’s evidence that the stale task force buddy system endures, and that America’s Ryder Cup team, rather like its two main political parties, just can’t bring itself to pass the baton to a new generation to forge a brighter future.