09/14/2016

On Monday, Davis Love III made his initial three captain’s picks for the upcoming Ryder Cup. With the Tour Championship to play next week, Love has just one more spot to fill on an American team seeking its first victory over the Europeans since 2008.

Only JB Holmes among the first three Ryder Cup selections—Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar were the other two—could be considered a surprise. Even that’s a stretch. Holmes finished 10th in the US Ryder Cup points standings, just behind Bubba Watson…who didn’t receive the nod from Love.

That’s where American fans raise an eyebrow. During his press conference, Love refused to address Watson’s absence directly and downplayed the need for length. Those on Twitter and elsewhere weren’t as dismissive. After all, Watson’s driving ability makes him a dangerous opponent in match play.

Then again, he hasn’t played all that well this season. Nor have Fowler or Kuchar. So, we’re left with three to four understandable picks, if not sexy ones.

It’s an inexact science. On the surface, Fowler was always going to make this team. His form in 2014-15 put him at the top of the game even though he regressed this year. At 27, he remains one of the United States’ best hopes of reversing the Ryder Cup trend.

 

On the surface, Fowler was always going to make this team.

 

Although the same couldn’t be said for Kuchar, the Skechers’ man does have Tiger Woods on his side. In fact, if we forget the results on the course, we can limit the captain’s picks to this: Woods vouched for Kuchar. Phil Mickelson (and Jordan Spieth probably) vouched for Rickie. Love vouched for Holmes.

And that’s it. That may seem like far too general a way to choose players given that golf is full of statistics. As Troy Klongerbo said on Twitter, the chemistry between Bubba’s driver face and ball could be more important than chemistry between teammates and him.

So let’s peek at some stats to decide who the last pick should be—or as we’ll see, shouldn’t be—if we looked at number’s alone. Golf’s a funny game. It’s best not to overthink it.

We want a guy who can drive the ball far

At 7,678 yards, Hazeltine is one of the longest tracks in golf. Don’t let Love’s comment about the length fool you. Players will need to drive the ball far to win points in Minnesota. The good news is that the United States team is already well set up for that. In Dustin Johnson and Holmes, the Americans will bring the PGA Tour’s two longest hitters to the Robert Trent Jones course. Watson, although it sounds like Love won’t select him, ranks fourth.

So if Bubba isn’t the guy, maybe the next top bomber should be. That would leave Love to pick between Tony Finau (third at 312.2 yards) and Andrew Loupe (fifth, 309.3). Both represent young talents whose distance makes them competitive. Finau is 11th in Par-5 Birdie or Better percentage, while Loupe ranks 15th in the same category.

That slim margin gives Finau the edge, which means a player with two top-10’s in 28 2016 events and ranked 73rd in the world would go against Europe’s best.

We want a guy who can drive the ball accurately

Okay, so maybe you don’t feel great about giving Finau the nod. Understandable. You’d prefer a player drive the ball accurately rather than long, and Finau ranks 177th in that department. Besides, the course will set up differently than it would in a major. It could play 7500 yards vs nearly 7700. Just being in the fairway is more important than gaining any length advantage.

If that’s your thinking, you’re looking at…Colt Knost. With a percentage of 73.36, no one on tour hits more fairways than Knost.

But there’s a reason for that. The SMU product ranks 187th in driving distance. His average of 269.7 yards is nearly 45 yards behind Johnson’s leading number. Knost enjoyed a nice season by his standards: three top-10’s, 20 cuts in 26 events. He’s nowhere near a Ryder Cup candidate, though.

We want a guy who can knock in putts

So many matches come down to the greens. If a guy is sinking 15-footers all day, there’s little any opponent can do to beat him. It’s why American fans love having guys like Spieth, Zach Johnson and Brandt Snedeker in the fold.

Let’s consider, then, strokes-gained-putting to determine a captain’s pick. The results shouldn’t surprise us. Jason Day is tops on tour, while Spieth and Phil Mickelson both sit inside the top 10.

If this is your statistic of choice, Kevin Kisner is your guy. And rightfully so. Kisner is 32nd in the world rankings and made noise in 2015 by, somehow, losing three playoffs. He grabbed that elusive win in 2016 and has remained a steady player.

But maybe there’s someone better, someone who combines drives the ball far and accurately and gets it done with the flat stick as well.

That leaves us with…

Andrew Landry! Yes that Landry, the one who’s missed nine cuts in his 18 starts on the PGA Tour this season. Somehow, he ranks ninth in strokes-gained off-the-tee and fourth (!) in strokes-gained putting. Meanwhile, he’s 58th in driving distance and 27th in driving accuracy.

Those are outstanding numbers, if not misleading ones. “What about the irons?” you ask. Well, Landry ranks 184th and 182nd in strokes-gained approach-the-green and around-the-green respectively. That’s poor.

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The point is we can’t find a magical stat, or combination of them, that will yield a perfect Ryder Cup captain’s selection. Even the points system itself is misleading. Just look at Zach Johnson. His qualification was almost entirely due to his 2015 Open Championship. Since then, he’s played poorly. Johnson has just five top-10’s in 2016, only two coming in April or later.

But he’s going to Hazeltine, while Landry, Finau and Knost are not. Let’s end with a cliche. The win-loss column come Sunday of the Ryder Cup is the only statistic to pay attention to. That’s probably for the best.

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