In the first significant tactical decision of his captaincy of the European team, Luke Donald has opted to have six wild-card selections in his quest to regain the Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club in Rome next September.
Three players will qualify automatically via a European (DP World Tour) points list and another trio from a World (OWGR) points list. This week’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth will be the starting point of the qualifying period, which will end on Sept. 3, 2023, three weeks ahead of the biennial match against the Americans.
Donald, assistant captains Edoardo Molinari and Thomas Bjørn, and the DP World Tour tournament committee also decided to tweak the ratio of points between highest and lowest events on the schedule, from 6:1 to 4:1; to retain the rule that no points will be available in any tournament played anywhere in the world scheduled against a Rolex Series event on the DP World Tour; and remove the multiplication of points in the final stages of qualification.
Explaining the modifications, Donald said: “The six picks give me flexibility to ensure we have the strongest lineup in terms of in-form players, players with Ryder Cup experience, and potential pairings.
“As far as the European points list is concerned, modifying the points allocation will give an improved chance for DP World Tour members playing predominantly on the DP World Tour to make the team. We have also moved the end of the qualification period forward to give the players the right amount of preparation time once they have made the team.
“A lot of work has already happened behind the scenes, but in many ways the start of the qualification campaign represents the true beginning of the Ryder Cup journey, so I am delighted to confirm these details today. We are all focused on reclaiming the cup in Rome next September, and this qualification system gives us the best opportunity of doing just that.”
“It’s certainly a change from past years, but certainly myself and Edoardo, especially, we did a deep dive into some statistical analysis and really thought this was going to give us the best opportunity to have the strongest team.”
It not only is unprecedented for a European captain to have a half-dozen picks but has prompted many thoughts on the state of the sport in the continent. On the one hand, there was no mention of LIV Golf, but many have interpreted the move as a counter to any rebel aspirations to play in 12 months’ time, given that the change greatly reduces any defectors’ opportunity to qualify by right should the on-running legal fight go their way.
On the other hand, despite Donald’s assurances, the fact that only three players will qualify via DP World Tour points limits hopes for golfers playing that circuit alone and also hints at recognition of the tour’s waning resources.
Donald, who replaced Henrik Stenson as captain after the Swede signed with LIV Golf, quite clearly has chosen a different route to his predecessor Pádraig Harrington, who told Ireland’s RTE Radio at the start of his leadership: “I wanted three (because) picks only complicate it. You can cause dissension in the team if somebody doesn’t get picked that the rest of the team thinks they should have been picked. Getting a pick and having people second-guess why you got that pick brings enormous pressure to the player during the event. Whereas, qualifying by right, you deserve to be there. We will build a team around guys who qualify.”
In contrast, Steve Stricker, the U.S. captain whose squad defeated Harrington’s Europeans, 19-9, last year, opted for self-selecting half his team. That decision was not, of course, the sole explanation for Europe’s surrendering of the cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. Nor was it Donald’s only criterion in making the decision.
Ahead of the DP World Tour’s Made in HimmerLand tournament last week, Donald added a crucial detail: “It’s certainly a change from past years, but certainly myself and Edoardo, especially, we did a deep dive into some statistical analysis and really thought this was going to give us the best opportunity to have the strongest team.”
Do not underestimate the input of Molinari, a disciple of Mark Broadie’s statistical breakdown of the game. Broadie is described by U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick as a “genius” for the work he does with numbers for about 20 players on either side of the Atlantic.
Duncan Carey, a data and performance analyst who worked alongside Bjørn ahead of and during the European triumph in Paris four years ago, told Global Golf Post: “We often found that players qualifying from seventh to ninth performed less well overall while wild cards tended to perform as well as the top six.
“This could be down to several factors, but quite often the players finishing in seventh to ninth have hung on to their spot from performances early in qualification and head into the event in poorer form than those who have been picked essentially because they are on form.
“In truth, it’s unlikely that any captain won’t pick players in seventh to ninth, so it might be redundant, but I think it allows for any situation where someone out of form gets in the team. It takes that scenario out of the equation.”