Davis Love III was given a second opportunity when named captain of Team USA for the 2016 Ryder Cup Matches, which begin on Sept. 27 at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. It was under Love’s “leadership”—dare the word be used—when the Americans lost on the final day of the 2012 matches on home soil at Medinah Country Club after leading by a 10–6 score.
The PGA of America opted to give Love (no pun intended) a second-time designation as Team USA captain for this year’s matches—something only bestowed previously to the likes of golf titans such as Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Jackie Burke Jr., Sam Snead, and Tom Watson.
On Sept. 12, Love announced three of his four captain’s picks, and the results were baffling given the opportunity—and need—to show a clear move in a different and more compelling direction.
Davis selected Matt Kuchar, J.B. Holmes, and Rickie Fowler, with a final pick to be announced at the halftime of the Sept. 25 NFL Sunday night game between the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys.
Love went with his heart in selecting Fowler. The 9th-ranked player in the world has not shown much golf form in the last few months, and when presented with an opportunity to garner a Ryder Cup position after leading the first of the three FedEx Cup events at The Barclays, Rickie proceeded to shipwreck his golden opportunity with faulty play in the final nine holes at Bethpage Black. It appeared that Fowler would still have enough of a cushion to get to the final event of the season with The Tour Championship in Atlanta at East Lake, but once again he showed poor play at the BMW event on Sept. 11 and was nudged out of the 30th and final spot by a margin of just .57 points.
Fowler is well-liked by a broad range of people within the inner circle of golf’s establishment in America. Rickie is clearly charismatic with the fans and has struck a deep chord with young people, who see his youthful charm endearing when held against the walking-robot personalities that far too often dominate the men’s golf landscape.
But Rickie has had a woeful 2016 season when held against what he accomplished in ’15 when he won The Players Championship and Scottish Open. Fowler missed cuts this year at The Masters, The Players Championship, Memorial, and U.S. Open. He has not had a top 10 finish in a major championship since 2014 when he placed in the top five in all four key events. In two earlier Ryder Cup appearances, Rickie accumulated a collective record of 0–3–5. During his stellar ’15 season, there was early speculation he would become the fourth member of what had been dubbed golf’s new big three, with the likes of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy. Such talk was clearly premature.
While Fowler is ranked as the 9th best player in the world, the bulk of those accumulated points came from early this season and from what he did in 2015. Rickie’s meltdown at Bethpage just a few weeks ago has resurfaced the scuttlebutt that, despite all his flair, he is not able to close out key events when situations present themselves.
Love could have held Fowler out and waited to see what happens at The Tour Championship, even though Rickie is not playing, and see how the other contenders for the final captain’s selection play that week.
Given the losing streak the Americans have endured at recent Ryder Cups, one would have thought that going to other available players—who have not played in a Ryder Cup—might have been the better route. Emerging stars such as Daniel Berger and Justin Thomas come to mind, along with longtime veterans Bill Haas and Kevin Na, who were clear options. Ditto the likes of Jason Dufner—a former Ryder Cup member and past major championship winner. Longtime USA Ryder Cup member Jim Furyk was also touted as a possibility, but given the fact that Furyk has lost a record 20 matches during his extensive Ryder Cup participation, one can only say that going in another direction is clearly long overdue.
And then there is Bubba Watson.
The 7th ranked player in the world has won two Masters, but his Ryder Cup record is also not one to boast about—going 3–8 and never having won a singles match in his past participation. Is Davis sending Bubba a “tough love” message to motivate him to play well in The Tour Championship? Bubba is clearly talented when engaged in playing, but his uncanny wherewithal to allow small things to bother him can be the kind of trait that isolates him from his teammates. Nonetheless, Watson remains able to make a final statement and get the final spot on the team.
Love opted to go with three-time Ryder Cup member Matt Kuchar, who has a 4–5–2 record in the biennial event. Kuchar has a pleasant disposition and can be paired with just about any other player during the fourballs and foursomes competitions. But Kuchar has never won a major championship, and while he has shown a propensity for consistency, he has also not been able to show a drive to close out tournaments with wins.
Holmes previously played on the 2008 American squad—the last one to win the Ryder Cup at Valhalla in Kentucky under the captaincy of Paul Azinger. J.B. pushed his name to the forefront with a tie for 4th at the recent BMW event. His length will certainly bode well for him as Hazeltine National can stretch to 7,600 yards.
The stakes for Team USA in this year’s matches are extremely high. Getting the Ryder Cup back on American soil has been a longtime objective, but the results have consistently shown a USA team clearly outplayed in crucial moments. Love does not want to be the first American captain to lose twice against Team Europe when leading the team from the helm position.
Given the top-down management style used by Tom Watson during his captaincy in 2014 at Gleneagles in Scotland—which was summarily rejected by the likes of Phil Mickelson—the American philosophy is now more about achieving consensus, and Love has embraced the concept. Whether that method works to spur on Team USA is speculation at this moment.
The reality is that “tough love” is not something Davis is comfortable in demonstrating. Love opted to go with his “heart” in his three captain’s picks thus far. There’s little question the heat will clearly be on those Davis has selected to perform well during the matches. Is Love blind? No one can say for certain, but when matters are decided solely by the heart with little guidance from the head, the likelihood for success can prove most difficult. Team USA has only to look at the recent distant past to realize how high the stakes will be at Hazeltine. Making more timely putts at opportune moments will clearly be a requirement to turn the tide against Team Europe.
Will Love conquer all?
In romance it does, but sports at the highest level requires a steely resolve and utter clarity in seeing matters clearly without the heavy anchor of emotionalism and sentimentality fogging up the necessary vision. Team USA is favored to win at Hazeltine, but that has been said in previous Ryder Cups and has left the Americans often bewildered and frustrated.
The stakes are indeed that high at Hazeltine.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.