Zach Johnson’s job just got a little easier.
The first-time United States Ryder Cup captain has the most pressurized part of the gig still a few weeks ahead of him: Making his six captain’s picks.
There’s definitely more scrutiny on the boss man these days, with half the 12-golfer team to be decided by Johnson personally. (I realize he’s consulting with many people on this, but ultimately he’s got to make the final call.) Used to be that the Ryder Cup points list did more of the work with regards to automatic qualifying spots.
Fortunately for Johnson, though, recent developments — both on and off the course — have made it easier for him to bring the best team to Rome, where the U.S. will attempt to win in Europe for the first time in 30 years.
For one, the ‘framework agreement’ between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund took away much of the animosity between the traditional golf ecosystem and LIV Golf. Previous to June, the thought of a LIV player making the squad without, say, winning a major (Hello, Brooks!) would’ve been preposterous to even think, let alone speak aloud.
Now, though, since we’re supposedly all on the same team again, much of the stigma around a LIV captain’s pick is largely gone. Or at least it should be.
That’s a good thing for Johnson, because there are two LIVers who I would hand Ryder Cup spots to based on their recent form … and one presumed Team USA mainstay who has played his way out of the conversation.
Start with the negative side: Justin Thomas has fought valiantly this summer to recover his major-caliber game, but it’s just not happening. His near-miss of the FedEx Cup playoff field not only means his PGA Tour season is over, it also means he’ll have no opportunity to test his skills in elite competition until after Johnson’s picks are due.
I was willing to give Thomas a large benefit of the doubt, but when you don’t break 80 on two separate major rounds this year and finish 71st on a now-diluted PGA Tour, that’s enough to have me look elsewhere. The 2022 PGA Championship and previous Ryder Cup success aren’t sufficient to overcome a troubling lack of form.
But, like I said, Captain Z.J. has not one but two LIV players who would be solid fits in red, white and blue alongside their fellow rebel Koepka.
The first of those is Bryson DeChambeau.
Not only has the always-polarizing figure been a top-10 presence in two majors this year, his game appears on a big-time upswing after shooting 61-58 on the weekend at LIV Greenbriar. The history Old White course has long been a shooting gallery for the game’s best — whether it be in a PGA Tour event or on LIV — but 58 is the rarest score in pro golf.
Beyond the numbers, DeChambeau is looking as sharp as he has in two years, when he starred for the Americans at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. He might have lost a few yards off his driver in the name of physical sustainability, but he’s still jaw-droppingly long to go with a putter than be as hot as any in the sport.
For me, Bryson is a no-brainer captain’s pick, especially when you factor in career experience as a tiebreaker. No offense to a PGA Tour late bloomer like Denny McCarthy, who’s had an awesome year, but he doesn’t have DeChambeau’s tools. (Not saying McCarthy absolutely shouldn’t make the team, but just using him for comparison’s sake.)
The other LIV standout I’d have in mind for the Ryder Cup is Talor Gooch. Only he knows if he actually intended last year to commit to LIV full-time, but he’s made the most of the move.
First, he was a surprising key figure in the Four Aces’ 2022 team title, but Gooch has taken it up several notches in ’23, to the point where he leads the individual points race with three events remaining. He’s won three times this season, sweeping the two-stop Southern Hemisphere swing through Australia and Singapore, then edging DeChambeau with a 54th-hole birdie at historic Valderrama in Spain.
Obviously, the strength of field on LIV is up for debate. No doubt the odds are less daunting with fewer players to compete against. But Gooch has been consistently at the top of the LIV pylon, with five top-20 finishes on top of his trio of victories. He hasn’t had an off-week in months on tour … but he’s been essentially a no-show at majors.
I admit that gives me pause.
I realize Gooch might not move the needle among casual fans, but if I wore the captain’s hat he would be a deserving selection. I like how he’s performed with players chasing him, which is probably the most pressure a golfer can feel when playing for himself.
Gooch aside, at the very least, Bryson should be planning for a seat next to his old buddy Brooks on the Team USA plane come late September.
That is, DeChambeau should pack for Rome if Johnson actually wants to give his team the best chance to win.
That’s my ideal scenario. In actuality, U.S. assistant captain Fred Couples has revealed that Max Homa, Jordan Spieth and Cam Young are all going to be captain’s picks, based mostly on the merit of their 7-8-9 standing on the points list.
So that leaves three available spots. I have to imagine the resurgent Rickie Fowler will get a nod, and continuing the theme of comeback stories, Keegan Bradley’s reliable ball-striking would make him a toss-up with Gooch in my book.
Collin Morikawa would be in if the top 12 were automatically taken, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen top from him, maybe since the ’21 Ryder Cup. I’d bump him for DeChambeau and then follow Bradley closely to see if he can keep it up.
If not, three LIV players would have a seat at my table in Italy.