Who will Tiger choose?: Handicapping the favorites for U.S. Presidents Cup captain’s picks
We’re still two months away from the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, but captain’s picks from Tiger Woods and Ernie Els are coming much sooner, and if the Ryder Cup is on a permanent two-year hype cycle, then surely it’s not too early to drum up some hoopla for its eager kid brother. The four picks for both teams will be revealed Nov. 4, and with only a few Asian swing events standing between now and the announcement, we’re starting to get a clearer idea of who the skippers might choose. Clearer, that is, but not transparent. In his August press conference after the automatic qualifiers were finalized, Tiger didn’t even mention a single potential pick by name, which leaves it to us to peer through the gloom and handicap the process for both teams.
Instead of odds, I want to stick to percentages that a player will be chosen with one of the four captain’s picks as we suss out the likelihood of each top contender teeing it up in Australia. We’ll look at the International squad in the coming days, but let’s start with the heavy favorites, the Americans. Here’s a look at who is already on the team and (almost) everyone who has been mentioned as a potential pick to join them.
Team USA automatic selections: Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Webb Simpson, Matt Kuchar, Bryson DeChambeau
Rickie Fowler: 98.7 percent
In the Presidents Cup, the two teams have unique concerns. Els for Internationals has to worry about language barriers—if there’s a South Korean golfer who doesn’t speak a different language well, selecting another South Korean has value. That obviously is not a concern for the Americans, but Tiger has something to think about that Els doesn’t: the Ryder Cup. It’s no secret that the Presidents Cup has added value in serving as a staging ground for the slightly bigger competition held in opposite years. (Stricker hinted as much in a Sky Sports interview two weeks ago.) Fowler has now played on four Ryder Cup teams, he’s the backbone of the younger generation, he seems to be everyone’s friend, and leaving him out of the dress rehearsal is almost unthinkable. He had a fine year, came close to making the team on merit, and etc., etc. But the real story here is that Tiger simply can’t leave off a popular Ryder Cup teammate when he has a decent argument to be included. There’s no debate, even when there’s a debate.
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Patrick Reed: 97.1 percent
It seems impossible to believe Reed won’t get a pick, because he’s got everything going for him. He finished 12th in the final points standings, not far from the cutoff, he’s been an absolute stud at match play for his entire life (even amid the Paris debacle, he still won his singles match), and he’s in solid form coming off a win at the Northern Trust and a T-4 at the BMW PGA Championship to close the 2018-’19 PGA Tour season. If he doesn’t get a pick, it’s not about golf—it will be because he alienated enough of his teammates and captains in Paris with his half mutiny to become persona non grata. If that’s the case, and Tiger freezes him out, you can expect he’ll also be left home for next year’s Ryder Cup if he doesn’t make the team on points. But that’s a lot of “ifs,” and regardless of how the rest of Team USA feels about him on a personal level, his exclusion still feels far-fetched.
Tony Finau: 83.8 percent
Finau was one of the few bright spots for the U.S. in Paris, posting a 1-1 record in pairs matches before collecting a big scalp in Tommy Fleetwood during Sunday singles. It didn’t matter for the final result, but it showed that he was up for the challenge and that his long, consistent game translated to match play. He was odd man out in the Presidents Cup standings, finishing ninth, just behind Bryson DeChambeau. With four top-10s in his last five events, it looks extremely likely that Tiger will throw him a pick.
Kevin Na: 50.0001 percent
It’s hard to ignore the recently unearthed story about Na’s ill-fated engagement in 2014, but let’s talk about his golf. He’s won twice this year, including two weeks ago at the Shriners, and Golf Digest’s Alex Myers is already paging Tiger Woods. I don’t think he’s across the finish line yet, but I do think his destiny is in his hands. If he plays well at the CJ Cup and the WGC-HSBC Champions, and the next man on the list does not, it will be very hard for Woods to leave Na off. More importantly, why would he want to? They seem to get along.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Jordan Spieth: 49.9999 percent
Here’s the Spieth Paradox: I can’t see Tiger leaving him off this team, and I also can’t see Tiger picking him. Let’s start with the argument against: Spieth has had a rough two years, full stop. He found his groove, sorta, late in the year, but nowhere near enough to put him ahead of the other worthy picks on this list. On merit alone, he has no argument. But then there’s his stature in the sport, and that pesky Ryder Cup—can you really keep him at home when he likely has such an enormous role to play in future team competitions, and has been so impressive in those gone by? Maybe he shouldn’t be this high based solely on his play, but he’s also Jordan Spieth, and that fact alone makes him a tough exclusion. And know this: If he shows any spark at the CJ Cup or the WGC-HSBC in the next two weeks, that’s all the excuse Tiger will need.
Tiger Woods: 33.5 percent
We want to believe Tiger will choose himself. We’re even looking for secret signs and symbols that it might be happening, and it’s possible that he might be tacitly encouraged to pick himself by certain powers since he’s ... well, since he’s Tiger Woods. At this point, I truly believe Tiger doesn’t know what he’ll do in regards to himself, but I think when the time comes, he’ll shy away. Maybe that changes if he plays well in Japan, but the truth is that he’s basically been MIA since the U.S. Open in June, he had surgery in late August and it’s hard to see what he gains by calling his own number. If he plays poorly, the optics are not great, and the easiest move for him is to serve out his role as captain and not burden himself with extra pressure.
Gary Woodland: 18.2 percent
Some have called Woodland an “obvious” choice, but I don’t see it. Yes, he won the U.S. Open, and then he disappeared. It’s very easy to construct an argument that he should be left off the team and pretty hard to construct one that says he deserves a pick after staggering through the late summer and fall. In the end, there are just too many other options. To make a team on reputation alone, you first need a reputation.
Kevin Kisner: 18.1 percent
In a world in which the American powers-that-be recognized match play as a distinctly different discipline from stroke play, those leaders would see the true value in Kisner, a man who posted an 11-2-1 record in the last two WGC-Dell Match Play events, with a title and a runner-up. The one time he got a chance at the Presidents Cup, he finished undefeated at 2-0-2. This man should be on this team, and if he plays well again, he should make the Ryder Cup, too. But he’s going to get passed over because his abilities aren’t quite appreciated, and that’s a shame.
Tracy Wilcox/PGA Tour
Phil Mickelson: 12.9 percent
Hard truth: As great as Phil is and has been, at some point he needs to be cut loose from these team events. He was a disaster of a captain’s pick in Paris, and his recent form tells an ugly tale, with finishes of MC, T-71, MC, T-52, MC, MC, MC, 57, T-71, T-48, MC and 61 since the Masters. There’s just no justifying it. Tiger was very vague when asked if he might have an assistant captain’s spot for Phil—“you know, that’s a great question,” he said, just before not answering it—but that seems to be the most likely outcome, articularly now that Phil has given Tiger an out by saying he's not expecting a pick.
Chez Reavie: 8.7 percent
Needs to win one of the last two events, and go top five in the other. And it still might not be enough.
Cameron Champ: 3.5 percent
He won a fall tournament, which means he gets to make this list on a “writer’s pick.” But he doesn’t get to make the team, or even come close ... sorry, Cam.
To recap: Woods’ three locks are Fowler, Reed and Finau, and the fourth spot feels like a coin flip between Na and Spieth that probably comes down to who plays better the next two weeks. He should pick Kisner instead, but he won’t, and in the end it looks unlikely that he’ll pick himself.