Circle of Trust: How Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III and ‘the cool kids’ gained control of the U.S. Ryder Cup process

ROME – After Keegan Bradley learned he wasn’t selected as a captain’s pick for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, he poured his heart out to Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis.

“I’ve always been an outsider in the sport but I have tried to get closer to the guys I thought would be on the team,” Bradley said. “I feel like moving forward I’m going to have to automatically qualify for the Ryder Cup.”

For Bradley, being snubbed for the team was an extension of being left out of the meeting of the “Delaware 23” in Wilmington, Delaware, during the 2022 BMW Championship when Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler flew in to meet with roughly the Tour’s top-20 players in an effort to remake the PGA Tour.

Bradley isn’t the only one who feels as if the U.S. Ryder Cup has become a little “too clubby,” a bit “too cliquish,” too much of a “boys’ club.” Stewart Cink is the only new blood to this year’s back room for U.S. Captain Zach Johnson, but even he isn’t sure whether he would have been invited to be in the cool club if Phil Mickelson hadn’t been banished from the U.S. Ryder Cup’s inner circle for the things he said before leaving for LIV Golf.

“I have felt a little bit like that, like I was just on the outside of a certain circle,” Cink told Golfweek. “I don’t necessarily feel exactly the same way (Keegan) does, though, because I hesitate – I’ve got to be careful what I say. I didn’t feel like I was outside of any circle.  I felt like there was a specific – OK, I’m not going to go there. I don’t want to say. I’ll just say this. I have felt similarly to the way Keegan says that he feels about being a little bit on the outside, a little bit maybe not in the fraternity necessarily. Just being a little bit of a different personality, plenty of experience, but not necessarily like in the club. It’s hard to get in if you’re not in.”

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The fraternity that Cink refers to may be more the Tri-Lambs of “Revenge of the Nerds” fame than the bullying Alpha Betas. After all, at Stanford, Tiger Woods was nicknamed “Erkel,” a reference to the goofball character Steve Erkel on the TV show “Family Matters,” Davis Love III was called Dufus, and Mickelson Figjam – if you don’t know why, Google it. So how did all these dorks end up at the cool table?

It goes back to the 2014 Ryder Cup when the U.S. side was blown out in Scotland, its sixth loss in seven playings of the biennial event, and Mickelson publicly threw U.S. Captain Tom Watson under the bus during the post-match press conference. The result was the formation of a Task Force, which empowered the players and was designed to create continuity in the team leadership. Ted Bishop was the president of the PGA of America at the time and along with PGA CEO Pete Bevacqua assembled an 11-man Task Force, which included past captains Raymond Floyd and Tom Lehman, and active players Davis Love III, Rickie Fowler, Steve Stricker, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk.

“My vision was a reset of the U.S. side,” Bishop wrote in a text. “A succession plan of Captains from the assistant ranks. Never saw more than three picks. The whole idea was to give the players a greater voice but not control.”

Continuity in leadership has been achieved as Task Force members Love, Furyk and Stricker have taken turns as captain. Presumably, it is only a matter of time before Tiger is captain – some say this would’ve been his turn had he not been involved in a single car accident — and Mickelson was expected to take the helm at Bethpage in 2025 until he became persona non grata after joining LIV. It’s ironic that the most influential figure in the formation of the Task Force and this new era of U.S. team golf is now banished from any involvement. That may have re-opened the door for the likes of Cink. Despite being a five-time Ryder Cup member and respected veteran of the Tour policy board, Cink had been on the outside looking in for a post with Team USA. He had admitted that he thought his window for being a U.S. captain had passed.

“In my case, there’s a lot of guys that were captains and assistant captains and it was kind of a cycle of the same – once that Ryder Cup Task Force started, it kind of became like the same guys, just it was a merry go round,” Cink rightly noted.

Johnson brought Cink on board in July as his final selection as a vice captain, the lone newbie in what otherwise is the same cast of characters (Fred Couples, Furyk, Love, Stricker). Even Johnson admits that the Team USA leadership is ready for some new blood.

“I understand that,” Johnson said. “At the same time, it’s like the guys you don’t pick for the team. All are worthy to be a part of it, it’s just how it works out given all sorts of factors. And that’s unfortunate. And there’s a lot of individuals that you know, probably could say the same thing and I get that. I feel honored and humbled that I’m still a part of it to some degree.”

Love thought he had his final go-round last fall as U.S. Presidents Cup captain, his third stint in that role overall, but he and Johnson are tight and so he agreed to do one more tour of duty.

“I’ve heard a lot of chatter about ‘Oh, no, here we go, Davis Love again. What about some new guys?’ ” Love said. “And then I had one friend of mine say, ‘I’d quit worrying about it, you guys are winning.’ ”

Indeed, since the Task Force installed Love as Ryder Cup captain for 2016, Team USA has won five of its last six Cups between Presidents and Ryder Cup, with its only loss at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris.

One person who didn’t participate in the Task Force was Paul Azinger, the winning captain in 2008, who shared his vision with the PGA brain trust individually. Azinger didn’t want to bestow too much credit to the Task Force, noting he wasn’t sure what it had really done other than mimicking the Team Euro blue print and said, “As long as past captains and future captains are being asked to be assistants. That’s the formula,” he said.

The Task Force awakened changes that were long overdue but it may have given too much control to certain players and left them open to charges of favoritism to certain players such as Justin Thomas, who received one of the six captain’s picks. This week’s Ryder Cup and the U.S. bid to win on European soil for the first time in 30 years – when Tom Watson of all people was captain – is a referendum on whether the Task Force has achieved its stated goal.

As Azinger pointed out, “It’s gotten a little cliquish,” but then he added, “that’s fine as long as they win.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek