How to fix the U.S. Ryder Cup team selection process

The American squad’s 35% win percentage since 1983 is a clear indicator that something is wrong. This proposal would better ensure that the U.S. is sending out its 12 best players

Ryder Cup 2023
Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas were both captain's picks for the U.S. Ryder Cup squad that lost 16.5-11.5 in Italy.

Editor's note: Peter Hill was co-founder and CEO of Billy Casper Golf until its sale in 2020. He is the lead director and investor in Buffalo Groupe, LLC, a digital marketing agency that owns The First Call.

The PGA of America undoubtedly has its hands full trying to correct the inadequacies of the U.S. Ryder Cup team selection process that is clearly broken.

The United States has lost seven of the last 10 Ryder Cup matches since 2004 and 13 of the last 20 since 1983. For those of you scoring at home, that’s a 30% win percentage since 2004 and a whopping 35% win percentage since 1983. That’s awful. Similar dismal results in other professional team sports or even public company earnings and stock performance typically bring about personnel and process changes to turn around downward trends.

So, why not in golf?  Let’s examine this issue in more detail and offer a compelling solution. There are two steps in the correction calculus: first, select a captain; second, set the rules by which the 12-player team will be selected. 

Unlike Walt Whitman’s extended “O Captain! My Captain!” metaphor poem mourning the death of Abraham Lincoln and the ensuing challenges facing the U.S. Republic circa 1865, picking a Ryder Cup captain and charting a new course for winning is not that difficult. Captain selection is at the exclusive discretion of the PGA of America’s executive team. This may surprise you, but the captain need not be a professional golfer — but it will be. They could pick Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Magic Johnson, Tom Brady or Steph Curry. Why even bring up this notion? Because a huge part of the captain’s responsibility is to be a smart, motivating manager of the athletes he’s selected to play on the team. His team.

By now it’s obvious: Accomplished golfers are no guarantee to make accomplished team captains. GOATS, in contrast, have a bully pulpit for planning, executing and winning on the highest level. Those are key elements of managing an extraordinarily talented group of individual golfers into a winning team.

Picking a team is infinitely easier than managing the team. Captain’s will have individual management styles somewhere on the spectrum between an autocratic “tough love” or “my way or the highway” philosophy to an unstructured failed fraternity of friends. Regardless of style, the Ryder Cup captain controls three key variables — selecting the designated number (currently six) of captain’s picks, the pairings for all four-ball and foursome matches, and the logistics for team travel, lodging, hospitality and meetings for the nearly two-week period prior to the actual matches — what we’ll call prep time.

With respect to the last variable, while the captain only has seven to 14 days prior to the event for a concentrated effort to create a culture or environment that fosters a winning spirit and attitude for his team, the captain has more than 20 months to prepare a plan to select and get his team ready to play.

What the captain needs is a time commitment from his team in the critical two weeks prior to the event (and after team qualifying is complete) to work on the intangibles of team dynamics. Time is a precious commodity for everyone and arguably more so for elite professional golfers with a relatively short half-life for competing at the highest level and maximizing earnings.

The time commitment dynamic is a strong argument for compensating Ryder Cup players. Great leaders, captains and managers harness talent from individuals to build winning teams by getting buy-in from each team member. Essentially, “If you want to play on my team, this is what the game plan for Ryder Cup preparation and execution will be.” If you don’t like it? Don’t play.

Most importantly, there’s a far better way for the captain to select the 12-player team. It goes like this:

> There are six automatic qualifiers — as there are now —based on the season-long points system. For the additional six players who will complete the team, the captain selects 12 additional America players (excluding the six automatic qualifiers and regardless of which Tour) for a 36-hole, stroke-play, play-in competition two weeks prior to the Ryder Cup. The captain designates six of the 12 invitees as Tier One players and the remaining six as Tier Two players. The six Tier One players will compete against each other for four spots on the team and the six Tier Two players will compete with each other for the final two spots on the team. Hence, this hierarchy of picks rewards the Tier One players by two times.

> Examining how this could have played out for the 2023 team, captain Zach Johnson left yearlong top 12 qualifiers Cam Young (No. 9 on the points list) and Keegan Bradley (No. 11) off the team and replaced them with Rickie Fowler (No. 13) and Justin Thomas (No. 15). Instead, under the proposed system, Johnson could have placed Fowler and Thomas in Tier One for qualifying if they were his personal favorites to make the team and assigned Bradley and Young to either Tier based on his preference. The key distinction is that players in the top 12 qualifying list would still be given an opportunity to make the team.  

A two-tier system gives the captain the flexibility to determine which players are assigned to which tier. He can favor players he would like to have on the team by placing them in Tier One. Also, the expanded group of 12 qualifiers picked by the captain doubles the number of golfers vying to earn a spot on the team and virtually eliminates the criticism of some players unfairly excluded from consideration to make the team.

Sound familiar? Beginning in 2025, the College Football Playoff selection process will improve its product by adopting a similar expanded model for participation — which, incidentally, is moving from four to 12 teams — and no one is objecting to that. Holding this play-in qualifying event two weeks prior to the Ryder Cup matches will increase players’ competitive preparation and avoid the “too much time off” syndrome.

Further, the 36-hole play-in event is a dream come true for commercial broadcast value, especially during the dull days of post-FedEx Cup Playoff fall tournaments. The substantial media rights fees for televising this event could be used by the PGA of America to (a) promote junior golf, (b) share with the 29,000 Class A golf professional members of the PGA of America, (c) donate to charity, or — wait for it — (d) pay the Ryder Cup team members. Or any combination of these.

Soon, the PGA of America will announce its captain for the 2025 Ryder Cup at Bethpage Black in New York and the obvious choice is Tiger Woods. If the PGA offers and he accepts, it’s clear that this would solve the leadership void exhibited in the recent team loss in Italy. Candidly, Woods has the platform as a GOAT to write his own script for team selection and management should he choose to. And, he could benefit from the team selection process noted here.