Ryder Cup: Six wild card picks give captains unprecedented influence

Luke Donald and Zach Johnson are the first, and could be the last, captains to have so few automatic selections

It may never happen again. Actually, it shouldn’t! Both Ryder Cup captains for the latest instalment of the match between Europe and the United States – which takes place at Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome, starting on Friday – were given an unprecedented six wild card picks to complete their teams, making for a 50/50 split between those who had automatically secured their places and those who required favours.

There were tears of sadness, anger too, on both sides. The biggest fall guys in the splitting of hairs that went into the destination of those captains’ picks were Europe’s Adrian Meronk and America’s Keegan Bradley, with others too perhaps hurting from being overlooked.

The history of the captain’s picks is littered with vindication – as in Ian Woosnam’s emotional selection of Darren Clarke for The K Club in 2006 – but also with red faces, like the time Mark James opted for Andrew Coltart as a wild card for Brookline in 1999 (ahead of Bernhard Langer and Robert Karlsson) only to leave the Scot without any gametime until his Sunday singles where fate brought a certain Tiger Woods as his opponent.

Woosie’s selection of Clarke and Lee Westwood as his wild cards in 2006 actually rates as the wisest use of a captain’s pick, with the two players going through the match unbeaten and amassing seven points (six wins, two halved matches) from a possible eight. Woosnam’s faith in the pair was entirely justified, even though there were strong misgivings about Clarke following the death of his wife Heather six weeks before the contest but Woosnam went with his heart.


Where there were times that a captain’s “gut feeling” was sufficient to give one player the edge over another, the influence of data analysis has become a primary factor with Paul McGinley’s decision-making for the match at Gleneagles in 2014 – when, ironically enough, this year’s European captain Luke Donald was the player who lost out to Westwood in the wild card choices – seen as a game-changer in how captains pick their wild cards.

McGinley used a website – strokeaverage.com – to trawl through a decade of data for the Johnnie Walker Championship which had been played at Gleneagles to find common traits in those who did well, which influenced his wild cards but then went further in aiding the composition of his pairings.

Yet, there’s only so much figures and numbers and spreadsheets can achieve.

As McGinley observed after the fact, “you can do all thee statistical analysis you want but ultimately it will be players that will win you the Ryder Cup or lose it. All you are trying to do as a captain is to equip them with the tools to perform.”

What’s different this time is the scale of those wild cards, six apiece. Unprecedented if the truth be told.

It means that Donald and Zach Johnson have had a greater influence into the make-up of their respective teams than any past captain and there will going forward likely be a push for some change, especially in light of Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy automatically qualifying off the European points list rather than the World points which was created to aid those Europeans primarily playing the PGA Tour rather than the DP World Tour.

Whatever about future qualifying changes for Europe’s two-tier qualifying set-up, there is also likely to be a rollback on the US system with a greater numerical emphasis back on automatic qualifying.

Does the large number of picks available to Donald and Johnson place added burden on them? Or does it lessen the pressure, knowing that the teams have been shaped by their decision-making as much as the lengthy qualifying campaigns?

What we know of both Donald and Johnson is that they are cool customers, unflappable on the course in their own Ryder Cup playing days and with a calmness off it.

As Pádraig Harrington observed of Donald, who was one of the Dubliner’s vice-captains at Whistling Straits, “he’s been a very good captain to have passed the baton on to. He rang me several times looking for bits of information, kept me informed, kept me included and I made it very clear to him that it was his tournament now and I had passed on the baton. He’s got to do his own thing. He was a great vice-captain and I know he’s going to be an excellent captain.”

Donald’s wildest gamble of his wild card picks was in opting for Ludvig Aberg, who only turned professional in June who has made a seamless move into the pro ranks. His leapfrogging of the Swede others – most notably Meronk – told its own story of the inner steel that once saw Donald move to number one in the world rankings.

You can be sure he also had mountains of data spreadsheets in front of him in making the call in favour of the Swede.

If he had been a past captain, though, there would not have been the safety of a sixth wild card pick. It’s also unlikely to happen again.