United States proudly sending forth the team that Steve Stricker built

No fewer than 11 of the US team are ranked in the top 16 in the latest world rankings

US captain Steve Stricker: ‘But ultimately how these guys fit the course is the biggest determining factor.’ Photograph:  Andrew Redington/Getty Images

US captain Steve Stricker: ‘But ultimately how these guys fit the course is the biggest determining factor.’ Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

 

At one of the Ryder Cup media conferences organised by the PGA of America in hyping up the upcoming match at Whistling Straits, a video of Steve Stricker’s passion – as a player – was among the precursors. For someone seen as stoic it showed his reaction to getting putts and involved instances of instinctive hollering and even fist-pumping the air.

“I think I pulled a hamstring on one of those,” quipped Stricker in a self-deprecating way, almost as if he were keen to move on quickly away from such displays of visible emotion, as if it detracted from his long-held attribute of coolly and calmly taking whatever came his way.

For, through his long professional career, Stricker – who had such ups-and-downs at stages, re-emerging from slumps stronger for the experience – has established a reputation for being one of the nice guys on tour. In fact, when Golf Digest magazine went to the trouble of polling players on the PGA Tour one year, for a “good guys” award, Stricker was the runaway winner. He also received the PGA Tour’s Payne Stewart Award for “exemplary professionalism” in 2012.

It wasn’t always so, as Stricker himself recalled of his early career and how to deal with poor play. “The thing I learned the most was knowing how to act when I wasn’t playing that well. That was hard. I wanted to let loose. But I wanted to look at myself in the mirror and say I wasn’t going to let golf affect how I treat others.”

Strick, as his friend Tiger Woods would call him, was true to his word, it must be said. To the point that late on in his PGA Tour career he became a part-time player so that more time could be spent at home with his family on the sprawling farm he owned and for fishing and hunting trips with friends.

So, it is Stricker who has been charged with captaining the USA – in his home state of Wisconsin – for this 43rd edition of the Ryder Cup, and that fact alone should be sufficient to pull together a group of players of varying personalities, some seemingly antagonistic to each other, but with a commonality of being among the very top players in the world.

No fewer than 11 of the US team are ranked in the top 16 in the latest world rankings, the outsider being Scottie Scheffler (at 21).

Fightback

Stricker’s own playing experience of the Ryder Cup – three times a player, in 2008 (won), 2010 (lost) and 2012 (lost) – has enabled him to see both sides of the coin, winning and losing, the defeat at Medinah in 2012 perhaps one of the most spectacular in the match’s history on the back of a European final day fightback in the singles and which saw streams of US golf fans exiting the course.

For sure, Stricker has done things differently to his opposite number, Pádraig Harrington, both in constituting his team, and also in deciding to put his Ryder Cup workload on the back burner for the weekend before the match, preferring to tee it up in the Sanford International in Sioux Falls in South Dakota on the Champions Tour where he has become something of a walking ATM machine since turning 50.

With Covid-19 forcing the match to be deferred by a year, from its original 2020 date, Stricker opted to utilise six captain’s picks as was his prerogative.

In truth it turned out to be a rather straightforward assignment with the world rankings – apart from one leapfrogging act – doing much of the job.

So it was that the automatic qualifiers of Patrick Cantlay, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas were joined by Daniel Berger, Harris English, Tony Finau, Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth. The only raised eyebrows came with Scheffler’s nomination, with Patrick ReedCaptain America himself – the fall guy, while Kevin Na and Billy Horschel were also overlooked.

Fired up

The weight of favouritism has naturally fallen on the Americans. “[It’s] a great fit for Whistling Straits,” said Stricker of his 12 men. “They are extremely excited and happy and fired up to be a part of this team...and they all told me they can’t wait to get [to Whistling Straits] and to do one thing, and that’s to bring the cup back where it belongs,” said Stricker at the time of announcing his six wild cards.

Having already captained a US team (at the 2017 Presidents Cup), Stricker has that experience behind him. It was also interesting, though, to hear the sound bites and the enthusiasm from his six wild card picks which, for the most part, seemed to suggest a great degree of unity as against the sort of disjointed messaging that had come from, say, DeChambeau and Koepka.

Take Berger: “He’s a great leader from the experience I had at the Presidents Cup, he makes it about the players, which I think is important in a team environment.”

Take English: “I’m excited to make this team. It’s been a goal of mine since I first turned pro, and to be able to play for Captain Stricker is going to be an unbelievable experience.”

Take Finau: “I’m honoured to join this team....it’s quite an honour to represent the USA, red, white and blue.”

And the Olympic Golf medallist Schauffele? “I want to thank Strick and all the (vice) captains for picking me and believing in me. I’m excited to run with these boys.”

All of which sounds like a united voice. And, then, add the words of Jordan Spieth, a no-brainer of a wild card pick. who – in revitalising his season with a win and four other top-three finishes in moving from 82nd in the world rankings at the end of 2020 up to 14th – said: “This goal was set at the beginning of the year for me, and it was kind of a lofty one. I had to make up a lot of ground after not having a lot of points the last couple of years but very happy that Captain Stricker has put his trust in me. I love the Ryder Cup. There’s nothing like it in our sport.”

Past teams

More than most past teams, this is very much Stricker’s own team. He had more wild card picks, the ability to pick his own men for 50 per cent of the actual team. He can pick and chose how and who to play in sessions, and knows that the hand is, for the main, the one he selected himself. That, perhaps, adds a different weight of responsibility.

“We [looked] at a bunch of different things [in coming up with picks], how they pair well with others is another huge component; how they are in the team room....I want to make sure that we are going to get along and be together and have that camaraderie as good as any year I’ve been a part of these teams, all that put together.

“But, ultimately, how these guys fit the course is the biggest determining factor,” said Stricker of the background analytics and statistics used in formulating the picks to add to the automatic players.

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