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Woodard: Forget the points lists. Let the captains pick their entire Ryder Cup teams

Back in April of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic had golf fans questioning when they’d be able to watch their favorite sport again, Padraig Harrington had an interesting idea to ensure the Ryder Cup, scheduled for later in the year, would still be played.

The European captain at the time, Harrington made the plea for the biennial bash to be the first event to return and for teams to be comprised solely of 12 captain’s picks: “Just 12 guys from Europe and 12 from America, with no prize money at stake and competing just for glory? Wouldn’t that be a nice way for sport to start back?”

The PGA Tour then returned to action in June, and a month later the Ryder Cup was postponed until 2021. The event, which the U.S. won 19-9 at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, did not feature teams of just captain’s picks. The Americans had six qualifiers via a performance-based points list, and the other six were selected by the captain. Harrington’s squad included nine players from a points list and just three of his own picks.

Pandemic or not, doesn’t Harrington’s original idea have some merit? Why aren’t the Ryder Cup teams selected by the captain and his staff?

Team captains Luke Donald of England and Zach Johnson of the United States pose for a photograph with the Ryder Cup trophy during the Ryder Cup 2023 Year to Go Media Event in Rome, Italy. (Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

“The feedback from last time’s Ryder Cup, it was a very positive influence to have the captain be allowed to have six captain’s picks for a variety of reasons and some that I didn’t even think about,” said PGA of America president John Lindert during this year’s PGA Merchandise Show. “When there were only two, the two who got picked somewhat didn’t feel inclusive because they were the two, right?

“With six, it’s a 50-50 field so it becomes a more inclusive team and it allows the captain to actually build a team.”

Lindert was referencing the years in which the U.S. captain had two picks, a change implemented in 1989 after decades of players being chosen based only on a points list. The U.S. was following the Europeans, who started things off with captain’s picks in 1979. In 2008, U.S. captain Paul Azinger changed his team to include four captain’s picks, and that remained the system – with a one-year break in 2014 when Tom Watson only wanted three– until 2021. The Europeans also have expanded their captain’s power over the years.

For this year’s matches at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club near Rome, Italy, both teams will have six automatic qualifiers and six captain’s picks. Six picks allow a staff to supplement a team. Twelve picks actually allow the staff to build one. And as far as inclusivity, imagine 12 players competing for their country, all picked by the same group to achieve the same goal. No 50-50 split there.

“The six picks give me flexibility to ensure we have the strongest line-up at Marco Simone in terms of in-form players, players with Ryder Cup experience, and potential pairings,” said Donald of Europe’s selection process.

Team captains Luke Donald of England and Zach Johnson of the United States pose for a photograph with the Ryder Cup during the Ryder Cup 2023 Year to Go Media Event at Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome. (Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

What’s more flexible than picking half of your team to maximize in-form players, those with experience and to plan the best pairings? Selecting an entire team.

There’s always an argument to be made for a player or three who were left off a team, and more times than not the captain’s picks come from the top 15 or so of the points list used to determine automatic qualifiers. But if a player is truly good enough, captains shouldn’t need a ranking system. The players’ form and performance should speak for themselves.

That said, the merits of a point system are obvious, too. The biggest con to the idea is the fear the event will become even more of a popularity contest. The best players should earn the privilege to represent their country. That’s where a captain comes in. How do you ensure the most-worthy players are picked? By naming the proper captains who will select the best teams. Not just by naming a popular name for name’s sake.

If it’s truly their team, a captain and his staff should pick who they want. Naturally a selection or three will be made based on course fit, for a match pairing or even due to past experiences. Picture a live selection show where a captain unveils his team and then gets to explain his reasoning. Professional golf is rapidly changing to improve its entertainment value. Match pairings are broadcasted, so why not the team selection, too?

Being a Ryder Cup captain is still in many ways a ceremonial role. With a staff of vice-captains at hand, let’s give ’em even more to do and make this classic event all the more interesting.

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