Projecting The 2021 United States Ryder Cup Team
The 2020 Ryder Cup, the biennial team competition between golfers from the United States and Europe, would have started on Friday. Unfortunately, the event, often considered to have the most raucous fan environment in golf, was postponed until 2021 due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
Just under a year from now, the top six players in the U.S. points standings will earn their spots on the team. Then U.S. captain Steve Stricker will complete his squad by announcing six captain's picks.
It's 364 days until the first set of matches in the 2021 Ryder Cup, but it's never too early to project the 12 players who will be comprise the American team:
Justin Thomas: lock. The Alabama alum has a combined 9-1-2 (W-L-T) doubles record in Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups, one of the best in U.S. team history. He beat Rory McIlroy in the leadoff singles match in 2018, giving the Americans a spark as they tried to mount a comeback. Some would even argue he has earned the "Captain America" moniker that used to belong to the controversial Patrick Reed.
Dustin Johnson: lock. His play over the last few months could be the best of his career. The world's No. 1 player has five straight top-6 finishes, nearly won his second major at the PGA Championship, and pocketed $15 million for winning the FedExCup. He finished T5 and T7 at the two majors held at Whistling Straits, the site of the 2021 Ryder Cup. Johnson is 6-2 in alternate-shot matches in Ryder and Presidents Cups but 2-4 in better-ball matches. Find him the right partners and he will be lethal.
Bryson DeChambeau: lock. He might be the No. 1 player in the world by the time the Cup rolls around. He has played 16 tournaments in 2020 and finished in the top eight in 10 of them. The longest hitter on the PGA Tour, DeChambeau won his first major on Sunday at the U.S. Open and seriously contended for another, the PGA Championship, last month. His length off the tee could be a tremendous asset, but Stricker will need to find him a suitable partner after he went 0-3 with three different partners at the 2018 Ryder Cup.
Brooks Koepka: lock. Koepka is battling a knee injury right now, but it should easily be healed by this time next year. The four-time major champion has shown he can raise his game for the biggest events, but he's been paired with four different partners in nine career doubles matches.
Collin Morikawa: almost a lock. At just 23 years old, Morikawa is already a three-time PGA Tour winner and a major champion, having stared down Johnson and DeChambeau to win the PGA in August. He's consistent, unflappable and one of the best iron players in the world. It's extremely unlikely that he would miss the team.
Webb Simpson: almost a lock. If Morikawa is on the team, then there's no reason for Simpson not to be. Both are average in driving distance, but their precise approaches and solid all-around games make them easy captain's picks if they don't earn automatic spots. Both could be excellent if paired with a bomber: Let their partners swing for the fences, and if they get a little bit erratic, Simpson and Morikawa can bail them out. Simpson's only two previous partners have been the sometimes-difficult Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson. Stricker should reward his consistent play and upbeat, selfless attitude with a more positive pairing.
Xander Schauffele: deserves a spot. Hitting the ball far and straight is the most important skill in golf, and Schauffele is one of the best drivers in the world. There's no weakness in his game, and he's finished in the top 10 in more than half of his starts in majors. His wins have come against strong fields at the TOUR Championship, the Tournament of Champions and the WGC-HSBC Champions. He and Patrick Cantlay formed a strong duo at the 2019 Presidents Cup, but he may have to work with a different partner this time around.
Tony Finau: deserves a spot. Despite only having one PGA Tour win, Finau is clearly a big-time player. He has ascended inside the top 20 in the world and has eight top-10s in majors, including at Whistling Straits in 2015. He's one of the longest drivers on Tour, but he also ranks third in strokes gained: approach and 43rd in strokes gained: around the green. His driving accuracy is the biggest concern, but if the team is smart, they'll set it up so the rough isn't too penal.
Daniel Berger: deserves a spot if he keeps it up. After nearly losing his PGA Tour card in 2019 while battling a hand injury, Berger rebounded and has been a top-10 player in the world in the calendar year 2020. He ranked in the top 40 on Tour in driving, approach shots, short game and putting in 2020, and has four top-3 finishes since June. If he keeps up that pace in 2021, he will earn a spot on his first Ryder Cup team.
Patrick Cantlay: deserves a spot if he picks it back up. It says a lot about Cantlay that we're considering his 2020 season, in which he finished 34th in the FedExCup standings and won more than $2 million, a down year. But it was his worst out of four full seasons on the PGA Tour. He contends in enough big events that he'll likely capture Stricker's attention.
Matthew Wolff: high risk, high reward. He will still only be 22 years old at the time of the Cup, and he only has four career top-10s on the PGA Tour. Two of those, though, were in majors, so he appears to be able to elevate his performance on bigger stages. His length off the tee would be a huge help, and his energy could benefit the team room, too. He's the powerful, emotional type who could work well with Simpson or Morikawa.
Patrick Reed: the last man on the team. It came down to Reed or Gary Woodland. Reed was a better driver, chipper and putter than Woodland in 2020, he contends in big events more often, and he has Ryder Cup experience. Five of the other 11 members of this team have never played in a Ryder Cup, so it can't hurt to add Reed's experience.
Honorable mentions: Gary Woodland, Kevin Kisner (great in match play but not in good enough form), Scottie Scheffler (very talented, but very young), Will Zalatoris (could be a top-50 player in a year, but not a member of the Tour yet), Cameron Champ (immense potential, but not consistent enough), Tiger Woods (will be 45 years old, best suited for a vice-captain role)
Once we have our 12 team members, though, how do we decide the pairings? Here's the ideal way to split up our soon-to-be victorious U.S. squad:
Thomas/Berger: Thomas is a ridiculously good iron player, having ranked in the top four on the Tour in strokes gained: approach for the last three seasons. He needs a reliable putter to partner with, and Berger is one of the best putters on this team.
Koepka/Finau: These two bombers were paired together twice in the 2018 Ryder Cup, and Finau was disappointed they couldn't reprise the pairing at last year's Presidents Cup, which Koepka missed due to injury.
Wolff/Morikawa: Wolff's wacky swing and gregarious energy and Morikawa's stoic and robotic game are about as opposite as two players can get, but that can sometimes make an effective pairing. The idea of Wolff bombing a 350-yard drive to leave shorter approaches for Morikawa's lethal iron game is quite appealing.
DeChambeau/Reed: It was tough to decide whom to pair with each of these controversy magnets, so why not put them together? They often play practice rounds together, they each think the other gets a bad rap, and putting them together could send European opponents and fans spiraling into a frenzy. Reed is 0-7 in doubles matches when not paired with Jordan Spieth, so finding him a suitable partner is essential.
Johnson/Simpson: These two both have the type of personality that could go well with anyone. Johnson is so nonchalant that it sometimes seems he might not know who his partner is, and Simpson's friendliness and positivity make him easy to pair.
Cantlay/Schauffele: You can't go wrong pairing two of the most consistent all-around players in the world. Both rank in the top 60 in all four strokes gained statistics, and they were paired together for all four matches in the 2019 Presidents Cup, going 2-2.