The Ryder Cup matches at Whistling Straits are still seven weeks away – there’s a full FedEx Cup playoff run fast approaching at the moment – but the thump of anticipation is already here like the vibrating bass notes from the car with the jacked-up sound system beside you at a stop light.
It’s been almost three years since the Europeans mobbed Francesco Molinari at Le Golf National when he clinched the cup, and exactly who will play for captains Pádraig Harrington and Steve Stricker along the windswept edge of Lake Michigan remains partly cloudy at best.
Harrington will have nine automatic qualifiers among his 12 players while Stricker must choose six players to go with his automatic qualifiers. It’s fair to say there are advantages and challenges to both selection formats depending on which side of the Atlantic one stands.
Last week in Memphis, Tennessee, pretournament question-and-answer sessions gravitated toward the Ryder Cup, almost like neighbors discussing preparations for an approaching storm. When the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational ended, there was an updated reappraisal of where everyone stands.
In, out or on the edge, the Ryder Cup temperature has begun to rise.
“I think that for myself and the other guys that were in France, you can never really learn unless you fail, and obviously we failed that week so hopefully we'll be able to use that as a learning experience for not only ourselves,” Justin Thomas said when the Ryder Cup question was raised. “But if there's guys that are new to the team and playing in their first team event or first Ryder Cup that we can use, because we have all the talent in the world but at the end of the day it doesn't matter about that, you just have to go out and execute and play better than the Europeans.”
The Americans will have the home crowd and home-course advantage, though Whistling Straits is distinctive enough that it may not play heavily in the U.S. team’s favor. Three years ago outside of Paris, the rough was so thick it put the bomb-and-gouge Americans at a disadvantage given their relative inaccuracy off the tee. At Whistling Straits, the wind could be the X factor.
“... I’m going to go in with the idea that this is where I belong, this is who I am and I’m supposed to come in and be a points leader for this team ... ”
So who’s most likely to be on the two teams in Wisconsin?
Three events remain for U.S. players to earn points and while only six will qualify automatically it’s easy to go ahead and get the team uniform measurements for eight guys.
Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth, Harris English and Thomas are going to Whistling Straits whether they finish in the top six or not.
Spieth’s return to form has been one of the year’s best stories and putting himself back in an American team room is as big a boost for the team as it is for Spieth. He was there in Paris but he didn’t qualify for the last Presidents Cup, ending a run of six national team events in a row.
“I think I’m going to go in with the idea that this is where I belong, this is who I am and I’m supposed to come in and be a points leader for this team and that’s the goal I think everybody coming in should have for our team,” Spieth said last week. “So I really, I don’t see it as being an extra appreciation because I may have missed out last year; I think I kind of got lucky that I didn’t have to go through that this time around and hopefully not for a long time.”
English will be a Ryder Cup rookie but he earned his spot with an outstanding season despite his ugly finish Sunday in Memphis.
Finding the next four players is where Stricker’s job gets difficult. For all the drama that comes along with him, Patrick Reed figures to be a pick.
That leaves three more with Patrick Cantlay, Daniel Berger, Tony Finau, Webb Simpson, Scottie Scheffler, Jason Kokrak and Phil Mickelson in the mix. Kevin Kisner gets consideration for his match-play moxie but he’s not had a great season.
Simpson was one of four Americans with a winning record in Paris (along with Finau, Spieth and Thomas) but his game has gone flat since dealing with a neck issue in the spring. The Simpson-friendly Wyndham Championship this week could be the get-well event he needs.
Finau remains an enigmatic case and could find Stricker deciding between him and Scottie Scheffler, who is making himself at home on leaderboards. Berger and Cantlay would be solid picks as well.
“After the top six make the team, I plan on seeing these six players and getting their feedback to the next six that we're going to pick,” Stricker said. “I want this to be a team effort. I want everybody to be all in on who these six picks are going to be and make it a team, a true team deal.”
Harrington won’t make his three choices until after the BMW PGA Championship concludes 12 days before the Ryder Cup begins. Harrington will start with Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Rory McIlroy, Viktor Hovland, Paul Casey, Matt Fitzpatrick and Lee Westwood as eight of his nine automatics.
Shane Lowry is a virtual automatic though Victor Perez has been holding on to the ninth spot.
Those are 10 of the 12 names on Harrington’s roster. The list doesn’t include Sergio García, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter or Guido Migliozzi, who has been on a run, or Robert MacIntyre. Of those, the veterans have the advantage and Harrington has said as much.
Ryder Cup matches are better when Poulter is involved and Harrington will factor that in. Rose has struggled with his ballstriking and is outside the FedEx top 125 while García had a stretch of four consecutive missed cuts earlier this year.
The Ryder Cup is like nothing else. Getting there – where we find ourselves now – is part of the fun.
Top: Team Europe fans during the 2018 Ryder Cup