U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker sure looks smart — his picks have hit all the right shots

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HAVEN, Wisconsin — When Steve Stricker was named the United States Ryder Cup captain in February 2019, he was all set to head into the scheduled 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits with four picks. But four months after the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered the golf landscape in 2020, the PGA of America shrunk the automatic qualifiers and gave Stricker two additional selections.

The six picks were the most by any captain in tournament history and opened Stricker up to some measure of criticism, including by those he passed over.

Now with his team holding an impressive 11-5 lead heading into Sunday’s singles matches, it’s fair to say Stricker’s decisions behind his picks – and who he selected – have been spot on.

Stricker only took one seasoned Ryder Cup veteran with those picks in 28-year-old Jordan Spieth, a player who likely would not have been on the team in 2020. Spieth was paired with Justin Thomas at the 2018 Ryder Cup, and the duo went 3-1 in a U.S. loss.

Tony Finau, 32, made his Ryder Cup debut in Paris in 2018 but went 2-1 in his matches. Xander Schauffele, 27, Daniel Berger, 28, and Harris English, 32, are all rookies to the tournament but not to one another nor team competition.

Finau was joined on the 2019 Presidents Cup team by Schauffele and fellow rookie Patrick Cantlay, who played together. Berger was on the 2017 Presidents Cup team, which Stricker captained, and he played with Brooks Koepka.

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“You know, some teams that have played together over the years, whether in Ryder Cups or some Presidents Cups, so we wouldn’t put them out there if we didn’t feel good about them, let me just put it that way,” Stricker said.

Scottie Scheffler, 25, was the one true rookie Stricker picked. But, Scheffler had finished second in the WGC Match Play championship and had three top 10 finishes in major championships this year. He also had couple of junior match play titles under his belt and was on the victorious 2017 U.S. Walker Cup team with Collin Morikawa.

With these picks joining two rookie automatic qualifiers in Cantlay and Morikawa, there was a feeling that Stricker’s team didn’t have enough Ryder Cup experience.

He looked at it another way.

“You know, we haven’t been on the winning side (for) too many things, I think two or three times out of the last 12 times – we’re not coming with bad experiences,” Stricker said.

“I see that as a positive.”

So did the players.

The United States’ recent losing history in the Ryder Cup really meant nothing to them.

“For me, the change of culture,” Finau said of what the new blood on the Ryder Cup team meant before competition began. “We have a whole new team. We have a team with no scar tissue. There’s only a handful of us that has even played in a Ryder Cup, and the few of those, we have winning records. So we actually don’t have guys on our team that have lost a lot in Ryder Cups. So what I mean by this is a big one is we’ve got a whole new team. We’ve got a whole different group of young guys that are hungry.”

With no baggage to carry onto the first tee, Stricker’s picks helped the U.S. team set an impressive pace to the Ryder Cup.

As a group they went 5-1-1 on Friday to give the U.S. its biggest first-day lead in 46 years.

“We’re just off to a good start, and we’re really building some really positive memories and positive experience,” Cantlay said after he and Schauffele won in Friday morning foursomes. “And we’re going to use that later.”

Did they ever.

Unburdened by history and only building in confidence, Stricker’s picks continued to pay off in Saturday’s matches, which included a couple of highlights:

Schauffele: He became the first U.S. rookie since 2012 to open his Ryder Cup career by winning his first three matches. He also went 36 holes of play before trailing, surpassing Phil Mickelson (34 in 1995) for the best stretch over the last 30 years.

Spieth: By going 1-1 with partner Justin Thomas on Saturday thanks to overcoming a 3-hole deficit in the morning session, the pair has four victories as a tandem in their Ryder Cup careers. Only Arnold Palmer and Gardner Dickinson (five) have more as a Ryder Cup duo.

Scheffler: Rolled in about a 9-foot putt in for birdie on No. 15 and then another birdie on No. 16 to give him and Bryson DeChambeau a victory over Tommy Fleetwood and Viktor Hovland in fourball play.

English: Striped a 234-yard approach to the green on No. 18 to 32 feet, allowing him to make par and force Shane Lowry to do the same to earn a full point after the Europeans had led for 15 consecutive holes.

Through two days the six captain’s picks combined to go 8-5-1 to stake the Americans to a commanding lead heading into Sunday’s singles matches. Now, Stricker’s team needs just 3½ more points to win the Ryder Cup for the second time in three years.

And while Ryder Cup singles play can be the ultimate crucible in the sport, the performance of the captain’s picks over the first two days no doubt has lowered the flame beneath them.

“It’s just a big momentum swing from our match going 1-down and going into 14 and the potential of it being 10-6 again like it was at Medinah (Country Club in 2012), for us to be able to flip that match was huge and to be able to win the last match on Saturday was good momentum as well,” Scheffler said. “Go out tomorrow, everything is a level playing field. I think we have a lot of guys on this team that really hate losing, and so individual matches tomorrow, I think guys are going to be fired up and ready to play. Hopefully finish this thing off.”

Contact Jim Owczarski at jowczarski@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @JimOwczarski or Facebook at facebook.com/JOwczarski.