Form vs. familiarity: A study of Ryder Cup captain's picks
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Form vs. familiarity: A study of Ryder Cup captain’s picks

With Darren Clarke set to announce his three captain’s picks for the 2016 European Ryder Cup contingent tomorrow, the age-old debate has surfaced again: Is it better to pick a player who has proven himself on the golf course right now, or a player who has proven himself on the Ryder Cup stage before?

Without looking at the numbers, history tends to remember captains for choosing veteran leadership, using terms like “leadership,” “experience” or “team room presence” when justifying the value of the pick. Media members, by the same non-scientific measurement, seem to value players playing well going into the selection process, often citing form and recent results as a means of measuring the best candidate. Who is right?

In tackling this question, the following is a breakdown of every captain’s selection over the past decade's worth of Ryder Cups. That is six competitions dating back to 2004. Over that period of time, there have been 19 captain’s selections by Team USA, with only 14 selections by Team Europe during that same period, with each team having its own selection criteria.

Team USA captain’s selections are a respectable 24-24-17 in that stretch, but dwarfed by the 27-16-9 mark by the Europeans. On average, that means that each European captain’s selection is worth a half-point more than any United States counterpart over time. (It should be noted that the numbers are inflated a bit thanks to Ian Poulter’s sterling 8-2-2 record in the Ryder Cup as a captain’s pick.)

But what about the type of player being selected?

For the sake of this discussion, all 33 captain’s selections have been grouped into one of three categories: (a) a veteran, (b) a player “in form” or (c) a veteran who is "in form".

The players who meet the criteria of both A and B need not be discussed, because even in the hindsight of their results (Steve Stricker was 0-4-0 at the 2012 Ryder Cup but had experience and a solid run of play that summer coming in), it is hard to question a captain’s choice. Defining “in form” is highly subjective. So as not to pigeon-hole success in one way, and trying to limit the period of time in which a golfer could be analyzed, both of the following were used to define a player who was playing well leading up to the selection:

1. Multiple international wins during the calendar year of the Ryder Cup selection

2. More international top-10 finishes than missed cuts in the three-month period prior to selection

This criteria may be harsh, but it also weeds out the one-hit-wonder factor of an isolated win, such as Hunter Mahan’s brilliance (and imperfect timing for captain Tom Watson) for one week at The Barclays in 2014.

In crunching the players based on the select criteria, the sample size is quite small. Between the two teams, nine players were picked by captains who could be seen as veterans who weren’t playing at the top of their games. Conversely, only four “rookies” were picked during that same period who were playing great golf at the time. The numbers support the theory that captains, historically, will choose veteran experience over youthful talent.

A surprise in all of this is that only one of the five USA rookies who were captain’s picks since 2004 also was playing great golf leading into the Ryder Cup: Brandt Snedeker in 2012.

In fact, the European team-building strategy appears more defined, with every rookie captain’s pick having been in excellent form heading into the Ryder Cup, with the exception of Stephen Gallacher in 2014, who did have a win under his belt that year. It also highlights how incredible the United States’ victory was in 2008, with three captain’s picks from Paul Azinger entering without their best as rookies.

When you look at the records of those who played, in-form rookies posted a 4-7-3 record since 2004, good for 1.375 points per pick. Conversely, the nine veterans who entered the Ryder Cup in shakier form posted a record of 16-10-4 overall, which is 2.0 points per pick. It would be nice to have more rookies who were playing well in the sample, but the recent history, at least, shows that veterans are the safer pick, even in poorer form, than red-hot rookies.

U.S. Ryder Cup captain's picks since 2004 (24-24-17)

2014 Keegan Bradley Vet + Form 1-2-0
2014 Hunter Mahan Vet 1-2-1
2014 Webb Simpson Vet 0-1-1
2012 Steve Stricker Vet + Form 0-4-0
2012 Jim Furyk Vet 1-2-0
2012 Dustin Johnson Vet + Form 3-0-0
2012 Brandt Snedeker Form 1-2-0
2010 Zach Johnson Vet + Form 2-1-0
2010 Tiger Woods Vet + Form 3-1-0
2010 Stewart Cink Vet + Form 1-0-3
2010 Rickie Fowler Neither 0-1-2
2008 Steve Stricker Neither 0-2-1
2008 Hunter Mahan Neither 2-0-3
2008 JB Holmes Neither 2-0-1
2008 Chad Campbell Vet + Form 2-1-0
2006 Stewart Cink Vet + Form 1-1-3
2006 Scott Verplank Vet 2-0-0
2004 Jay Haas Vet + Form 1-2-1
2004 Stewart Cink Vet + Form 1-2-1

Europe Ryder Cup captain's picks since 2004 (27-16-9)

2014 Stephen Gallacher Neither 0-2-0
2014 Ian Poulter Vet 0-1-2
2014 Lee Westwood Vet 2-2-0
2012 Ian Poulter Vet + Form 4-0-0
2012 Nicolas Colsaerts Form 1-3-0
2010 Edoardo Molinari Form 0-1-2
2010 Luke Donald Vet + Form 3-1-0
2010 Padraig Harrington Vet + Form 2-2-0
2008 Ian Poulter Vet 4-1-0
2008 Paul Casey Vet + Form 0-1-2
2006 Darren Clarke Vet 3-0-0
2006 Lee Westwood Vet + Form 3-0-2
2004 Luke Donald Form 2-1-1
2004 Colin Montgomerie Vet 3-1-0

So, as Darren Clarke makes his selections tomorrow and Davis Love III counters with his first three picks after the BMW Championship, don’t be surprised to see familiar names on the tips of their tongues.

For Clarke, it may be his way of repaying the favor. While he was a top 20 player in the world back in 2006, he was playing inconsistently that summer and needed a captain’s selection to make the European team. His result? 3-0-0 at a dominant European win.

Maybe familiarity does top form.

About the author

Will Haskett

Will Haskett

Will Haskett has had the privilege of broadcasting basketball, football, golf, soccer, tennis, cross country, track, swimming and lacrosse on every medium and in almost 30 states. He's worked for ESPN, Westwood One, CBS, Longhorn Network, Fox Sports, Turner Sports, Sirius/XM, the PGA Tour, the NCAA, Horizon League, Butler University, IHSAA and more. He's worked the Final Four, the Masters, PGA Championship and over 100 NCAA championships in 13 different sports.