The 2023 “Who Dey?” Ryder Cup

As the PGA Tour’s year winds to a close with two events to go, the talk in men’s golf now shifts to who will be playing in the Ryder Cup in late September.

The four majors produced a variety of results in 2023.  This spring, Jon Rahm won The Masters while Brooks Koepka claimed the PGA Championship.  The summer months produced two surprise major winners in Wyndham Clark (US Open) and Brian Harmon (British Open).

Those major victories carry such weight (in Ryder Cup points, that is) that the four major winners are almost a 100% lock to appear on either the US team (Koepka, Clark, and Harmon) or Team Europe (Rahm).   Each team has 12 positions with the top six point leaders guaranteed a spot.  The remaining half-dozen will be selected by the US Captain Zach Johnson and European Captain Luke Donald.

This year’s Ryder Cup matches will be played in Rome, Italy for the first time.  The three-day event will start on Friday, September 29 and continue through Sunday, October 1.

On paper, the US team looks to be the clear favorite.  Don’t fall for it!

Just like good ol’ Charlie Brown (the US) tries to kick that football every fall, his holder (Lucy – the European team in this case) seems to find a way to embarrass Chuck in this event in the past two decades.

The Europeans (usually the clear underdogs) have won seven of the past ten matches against the better known and higher ranked golf squad from the United States.  This September’s matches in Rome will provide a boisterous Italian home crowd a chance to supercharge the European golf team.

Based on recent history, “We’re doomed, Charlie Brown!

This three-day event opens with a couple of days of 2-player team competition and concludes with Sunday’s individual match-ups.

The best ball matches feature the two US players against two European golfers with each playing their own golf ball from tee to green.  The lower of the two players’ scores will count for the team.

The other 2-man competition involves the unique alternate shot format.  In these matches, the two teammates play just one ball from the tee box into the hole.  If one player hits the golf ball into the rough off the tee, his partner’s first swing on the hole will come from the deep grass.  .

Trying to figure out the best pairing of teammates can be quite stressful.

Nearly twenty years ago, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were clearly the best players in the world.

In the 2004 Ryder Cup, team caption Hal Sutton decided to pair the two dominating golf figures in the opening day of team competition.  Sutton hoped that golf’s dynamic duo would pick-up two easy points for Old Glory and set the stage for a US rout.

US golf’s Batman and Robin went a disappointing 0-2 playing as a team on opening day.

The US captain overlooked that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson played a similar “go for broke” style of golf.  The two players struggle at  times off the tee and would often find themselves in deep rough or with tree trouble.  That’s exactly what happened on the first day of the 2004 Ryder Cup.

The US team never recovered and was clobbered by a final total of 18 ½ to 9 ½ points.

Meanwhile, the European teams have prided themselves with spending time with each other on and off the course during the tournament year.  Long-time friendships are forged over years of competition and leisure time.

By contrast, most top US golfers do not spend a lot of time socializing with fellow competitors.  With lucrative golf tournament purses, most US golfers can afford to travel solo from tournament to tournament.

In recent decades, the Ryder Cup has been decided by successful player pairings during the opening two days of competition.  That is why the European team has remained so dominant.

How is the US Ryder Cup team shaping up for 2023?

As usual, the US team looks to have the individual statistical edge.  Captain Zach Johnson has a very closely bunched field in the #7-12 slots to determine the final six positions on the US team this year.

As of today, the top six point totals (which earn an automatic spot on the team) are held by Scottie Scheffler (World ranking #1), US Open winner Wyndham Clark (World #11), slow and steady Patrick Cantlay (World #4), British Open winner Brian Harmon (World #8), LIV Golfer and current PGA Champion Brooks Koepka (World ranking #13) and Max Homa (currently ranked World #7).

Currently occupying spots 7-12 are Xander Schauffele (World #6), Jordan Spieth (World #12), Cameron Young (World #17), Collin Morikawa (World #20), Keegan Bradley (World #16), and Shreveport’s Sam Burns (World #22).

The US Captain is not required to select the any of the golfers in #7-12, though.  He may pick any golfer which he believes will help the US to victory.

The top six golfers for the US are all solid, but none of that bunch seems to bring a fiery attitude into this emotional roller coaster 3-day event.

The six US Captain’s picks can accomplish that.

Keegan Bradley isn’t hiding his desire to play on this year’s Ryder Cup team.  A fiery and intense player, Bradley’s prior experience in this event could be an important asset for the relatively inexperienced US Ryder Cup team.  Owning a 4-3 career record in this event, the 37-year old golfer played for Team USA in 2012 and 2014 and wants another chance this year.

Prior to the start of this week’s BMW Championship, Keegan Bradley said, “Well, I think about the Ryder Cup every second I’m awake.  He added, “I feel like I could bring some experience to the team. I would personally love to just be on a team with this younger group.”

Others in the running for a Captain’s pick by Zach Johnson include the hot-and-cold Tony Finau, the resurgent 4-time Ryder Cup veteran Rickie Fowler, and, perhaps, Justin Thomas.

JT did not qualify for this year’s Fed Ex Cup Playoffs for the first time in his career after finishing at #71 for the season.  However, his prior success in the Ryder Cup as playing partner with likely selection Jordan Spieth could make Justin Thomas the most likely “reach” to join the US team this year.

Let’s not forget about the incredible “Mr. August” surge by Lucas Glover!

After completely overhauling his putting game to utilize a long broom-handle type of putter this summer, Glover has won the last two PGA events (Greensboro and Memphis).  If he can somehow keep this hot streak going (finishing in the top five of the two remaining events), the 43-year old Lucas Glover might unseat one of the other golfers to earn his first Ryder Cup appearance.

What about the European Team in 2023?

Outside of their top three players, the other nine players on the European Ryder Cup seem a little weak in comparison to the US team based on the world rankings.

Of course, the Europeans have been considered the underdogs in most Ryder Cup matches and won seven of the past ten.  Don’t bet against the Euros on their home turf.

This year’s top guns for Europe will Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy (World Golf #2) and Spain’s Jon Rahm (#3).  They will be the emotional leaders and expected to deliver results.   The #5 ranked Viktor Hovland of Norway has been so steady this year that he has not missed a single cut on the 2023 PGA Tour.

On paper, the other nine European golfers do not appear to be very intimidating.  That’s just the way that the Euros like it coming into Ryder Cup play.

The 12-man European Ryder Cup is determined by (1) three guaranteed spots to the top three European golfers in the World Rankings (that is McIlroy, Rahm, and Hovland).  The other three guaranteed spots will go to the top three finishers on the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour).  The remaining six selections will be made by European Captain Luke Donald.  Prior experience under pressure will be a key determinant.

Right now, the top three DP World Tour players appear to be set, too.  Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre played collegiately at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA.  He is ranked #58 in the world.

The other two current European Tour points leaders are Germany’s Yannik Paul (World rank #109) and Poland’s Adrian Maronk (World #52).

As Cincinnati Bengals football fans like to say, “Who Dey”?

The six Captain’s picks may cause Luke Donald a few sleepless nights in the next few weeks.  Let’s examine a few of his options:

World #10 Matt Fitzpatrick from England has posted one win in 2023 (Harbour Town).  Since then, he has cracked the top ten just one time this summer and missed the cut in two other tournaments.

England’s fiery Tyrell Hatton comes in at World #14 with four top-10 finishes this year.   Italian golf fans will love him!

Another golfer from England, Tommy Fleetwood, is ranked World #15.   Fleetwood is a fan favorite and has carded five top ten finishes in his last eight starts.  His putting under pressure, though, has failed him over the years.

After that, Austria’s Sepp Straka is available.  The #25 world ranked player might be better known as “Streaky Straka”.  Though missing three cuts in his last ten starts of 2023, Sepp Straka also posted a second place and a third place finish in his last three events.

Irishman Shane Lowry is now #32 in the world rankings.  He has zero top 10 finishes in his last ten starts (not a good sign).  The positive is that Lowry went 2-1 during the 2021 Ryder Cup matches and plays well under pressure.

Right behind him is English Ryder Cup veteran Justin Rose.   The world #33 golfer, Rose (now age 43) has been a part of five previous Ryder Cup teams.  His experience could be quite valuable to the younger players on the European squad.

Other European players with a chance to make the team include World #55 Seamus Power (Ireland), Victor Perez from France (#68) and young Dutch golfer Rasmus Hojgaard (#93).

Since the Ryder Cup is being hosted in Italy for the first time, the top ranked Italian golfer is not likely to be a Captain’s selection for the team.  Guido Migliozzi is ranked #28 on the European Ryder Cup points list but is not among the World’s Top 200 golfers.  Ciao, Guido!

Nevertheless, Italy will be represented on the sidelines.  Francesco Molinari (winner of the 2018 Open Championship) and brother Edoardo Molinari are serving as vice-captains (assistants) for Captain Luke Donald.

Of course, I’ll give you some predictions!

Look for both of the team captains to select golfers with some previous Ryder Cup experience to help steady nerves in the respective locker rooms.

For the US side, that means that Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Speith, and, yes, Justin Thomas will probably make the team.

On the European side, Justin Rose and Shane Lowry’s prior experience should land them a spot on this year’s relatively inexperienced team.

As for the outcome, a US team without Ryder Cup veterans such as Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson may struggle.

Don’t underestimate the influence which Italy’s highly partisan and noisy golf fans will have in this year’s event.

On paper, the US should retain the Ryder Cup.  However, the matches are played for a reason.  I’ll say Europe shocks the US with a dramatic 14 ½ – 13 ½ win as a surprising European rookie takes down one of America’s top players on the final day of competition.