I have a theory about Ryder Cup players. If the competition goes ahead in September as hoped, it will be interesting to see how my hypothesis plays out. If it doesn’t, well, there’s all the more time for some conjecture.
The theory goes like this: Not all Ryder Cup players are the same. They can basically be broken down into four categories. I call these categories World Class, Ol’ Faithfuls, Rising Stars and Randoms. Admittedly, this idea may not be entirely new. In Richard Gillis’ excellent Ryder Cup book, "The Captain Myth", he discusses Paul Azinger’s pod system for pairing players, splitting players into “aggressive,” “influential” and “steady Eddie” groups. This overlaps slightly with my theory, but mine is more to do with the team selection and composition as a whole rather than a way to work out pairings.
Now admittedly, the categorization of players into these four pots is somewhat subjective. If you came up with a list of players in each group, it would probably look a little different from mine. But in broad terms, there would hopefully be general agreement.
Here’s what I mean by each category and some examples of players who fit nicely into each:
World Class: These are the very best players in the game. Although Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) are not the be-all-and-end-all, we’re probably talking top 10 in the world with a recent major win to be a member of this exclusive club.
Classic examples: Tiger Woods whenever he’s healthy. Rory. Henrik Stenson circa 2016.
Ol’ Faithfuls: Tried-and-tested players who captains can rely on to do a job, even if recent form hasn’t necessarily been amazing. By definition, Ryder Cup rookies won’t fit in this category. (Azinger would call these guys "Steady Eddies.")
Classic examples: Ian Poulter. Sergio. Zach Johnson throughout much of the 2010s.
Rising Stars: Pretty self-explanatory. We’re sure they’re destined for greatness, but they’re young and/or inexperienced in Ryder Cup terms.
Classic examples: Bryson DeChambeau and Jon Rahm in 2018.
Randoms: These are the kind of players who you would struggle to name in some kind of Ryder Cup trivia contest. It’s not meant as a judgment of their skill level – they’re still most likely top-50 players at the time they made the team – but they tend to pop up for one Ryder Cup and then disappear.
Classic examples: Victor Dubuisson and Jamie Donaldson in 2014. Jeff Overton in 2010.
It’s worth saying that a player can jump categories several times in a career. For example, I classified Jon Rahm as a Rising Star in 2018, but at the next Ryder Cup he will definitely be World Class. Lee Westwood went from being World Class in the early 2010s to an Ol’ Faithful later in the decade. You get the idea.
What's the winning mix?
I would have thought that the ideal Ryder Cup team would consist of as many World Class players as are available, a decent sprinkling of Ol’ Faithfuls and Rising Stars, and no Randoms (although of course, it’s hard to tell whether these Randoms will go on to big things at the time. It’s easy to stick that label on someone with hindsight).
To put my theory to the test, I looked at the five Ryder Cups of the 2010s, and categorized all the players into my four groups. I then analysed the records of each. As many a clickbait article would say, the results may shock you.
The first thing to note is that the European and American teams tended to have a slightly different make-up in terms of these categories. While both had their fair share of World Class players (20 for Europe, 19 for USA), the USA had more Rising Stars (16 to eight) and fewer Randoms (three to Europe’s 11). That is probably a reflection of the fact that the US dominates the upper echelons of the OWGR, and so it can usually find 12 high-class players to call on. There also seems to have been a steady stream of young American players rising to prominence for much of the last decade, such as Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka.
Which type performed best?
So how did the various groups perform? It’s not surprising that the World Class players were involved in more matches than any other category throughout the decade, but their performance was steady rather than spectacular – they won just over half the points available (51.2 percent). Admittedly, achieving anything close to 100 percent is impossible given that multiple World Class players could be playing against each other. But this outcome is perhaps not that surprising, given that Tiger’s Ryder Cup record is notoriously poor (13-17-3), and Phil Mickelson’s is also mediocre (18-22-7).
There was a difference between Europe and the USA though – Europe’s star players tended to get the job done more often than their American counterparts (taking 56.8 percent of the points available, to the US’s 41.4 percent). The records of players such as Justin Rose (11-6-2) are a factor in this.
Over the five Ryder Cups in the sample, Europe’s World Class players scored 43.7 percent of their team’s points, compared to 30.9% for the Americans in the same group.
The Ol’ Faithfuls and Rising Stars were fairly unremarkable, winning 46.6 percent and 49.4 percent of the points on offer, respectively. However, the American Rising Stars outshone their European counterparts, taking 54.3 percent of their points compared to 38.5 percent for Europe. It didn’t help Europe’s cause that Francesco Molinari failed to win a Ryder Cup point in either 2010 or 2012 (he did have a couple of halves), but by 2018 he had been bumped up to World Class status, so his 5-0-0 record didn’t count for this category.
But here’s the sting in the tale: those unfancied Randoms came out with the best record of all, winning 55.4 percent of their available points. This was the smallest group, so it could be little more than a statistical quirk. But still, the performances of guys like Victor Dubuisson (2-0-1) and Jamie Donaldson (3-1-0) in 2014, and Thomas Pieters (4-1-0) in 2016, deserve our admiration.
I started my research thinking that these Randoms would be the Achilles’ heel, and that Europe’s success over the last decade has been in spite of these players rather than because of them. Actually, the opposite is true.
If the Ryder Cup is still contested in 2020, the European team could include the lesser-known names of Victor Perez and Bernd Wiesberger (though to be fair, Wiesberger has been tearing it up on the European Tour for the last year). They are both currently in line to qualify for the team without needing a captain’s pick, and with the rest of the 2020 schedule so uncertain, it’s possible that there might not be much opportunity for that to change. If my research is anything to go by, that might not be a bad thing for European fans at Whistling Straits.