Ryder Cup-etology: American qualifying ends, but Burns and Glover can still wreak havoc

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If you studied the BMW Championship leaderboard around noon on Friday—like a true Ryder Cup nut—everything seemed perfectly clear for the Americans. The five players at Olympia Fields who seemed to have the inside track for a captain’s pick were all (literally all) ahead of the three players outside the bubble, and you could imagine Zach Johnson in a room somewhere writing down the team roster in permanent ink. The major caveat is that this “bubble” business is all according to me as of a week ago. It goes without saying that my projections are not necessarily correct—I have not yet mind-melded with the captains, despite my best efforts. Still, I’m not a complete idiot, and it did mean that a perceived gap had widened.

It turns out, however, a golf tournament does not end on Friday at noon; it continues all the way through Sunday, and that gave the bubble boys plenty of time over the weekend in Chicago to muddy the waters all over again.

Sunday’s finish, indeed, left some subtle complications for Team USA, with perhaps a spot or two up for grabs, but if you think that’s bad, wait until you hear about the five-alarm cluster**** that is Team Europe.

So: Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s still got a whiff of a shadow of a prayer? Let’s get after it!

Selection format: For the second straight Ryder Cup (and probably into perpetuity), the Americans have only six automatic qualifiers, leaving Zach Johnson and Co. six captain’s picks to play with. The standings are now finalized.

Automatically qualified and definitely in: Scottie Scheffler, Wyndham Clark, Patrick Cantlay
Would take a miracle not to automatically qualify: Brian Harman
Might not qualify but in regardless: Brooks Koepka
Currently qualified, definitely in: Max Homa
Not currently qualified, definitely in: Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth
Still in, but nervous: Justin Thomas
Good side of the bubble: Cam Young, Rickie Fowler, Collin Morikawa
Bad side of the bubble: Lucas Glover, Keegan Bradley
Really bad side of the bubble: Sam Burns
Out, barring an extremely magical two weeks: Tony Finau
Out, definitively: Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Denny McCarthy

1. As mentioned above, the standings are now LOCKED. The captain’s picks won’t happen until after next week’s Tour Championship is over, but we have six automatic qualifiers who can expect their team uniforms to arrive in the mail any day now. All of their spots were already very, very secure, so it doesn’t change a whole lot to know that Scottie Scheffler, Wyndham Clark, Brian Harman, Patrick Cantlay, Max Homa and Xander Schauffele are officially on the team heading to Italy.

2. What’s more intriguing is that Brooks Koepka dropped out of the top six at the absolute last moment, and by an incredibly slim margin. To pat myself on the back a bit, I called this possibility after the Open Championship, when Koepka didn’t finish high enough to insulate himself from the challengers who were on the verge of earning big money and big standings points at the FedEx Cup playoffs while he would be stuck in place as a LIV Golf guy.

Now, do I think Koepka is still very much on the team? Yes. Do I think not picking him for the team would be an enormous distraction that would lead to all kinds of first- and second-guessing and be a major pain for the captains and players to deal with? Yes. But I do think there’s a tiny, tiny fraction of a chance that Zach Johnson, Davis Love III, Fred Couples, Steve Stricker and Stewart Cink might be sneaky hardliners who look even less kindly on the LIV defections than we think, and that they might do something really shocking?

Ehhhhh, probably not, particularly because Brooks isn’t one of the more divisive figures. Count him in.

3. There were a couple players Zach Johnson must have been very happy to see find some form at the BMW, with Brian Harman chief among them. It’s basically impossible to tell how a player will handle winning his first major—sometimes there are significant hangovers—and the only data we had on Harman post-Hoylake was a T-31 last week in Memphis. For him to finish T-5 is a really great sign. Ditto for Scottie Scheffler, who finished outside the top 20 at the last two events after quite literally never doing that all year, but who looked like himself again with a second-place finish (complete with outrageous ball-striking) that would have been first without the back-nine heroics of a certain fellow we’ll get to later. To some extent, Wyndham Clark also belongs in this group; he had a very rough time in Memphis, but put in a solid T-15 effort here.

4. Let’s get to the fun stuff: The Bubble Boys. I want to start with the guys on the outside looking in, and on that note we can officially dismiss Denny McCarthy. Yes, I did pronounce him definitively out last time, but a win changes everything, and in a 50-man field, who knows? But it didn’t happen. His T-10 finish wasn’t eye-popping enough to sway Zach Johnson, and he won’t be in the field at the Tour Championship. Denny, we bid you adieu. Oh, and let’s say the same for Tony Finau, who did make the Tour Championship, but turned in another playoff dud. This, I think, will be one of Johnson’s big regrets; if he were drawing up his ideal team two years ago, you know the name Tony Finau would be on that list.

5. Keegan Bradley‘s stock continued to plummet, and while it hasn’t bottomed out yet, his two-under finish, in the lower half of the field, leaves him in a really tough spot. I can see an argument that he’s the 13th man on the list—some people will want to put him above Justin Thomas, and more on that later—but I can no longer see any argument that he makes the team. Even a week ago, that was still a reasonable possibility, but the next man we’ll talk about has relegated Bradley to the very, very outside of the bubble, where only a win in Atlanta can resuscitate his hopes.

6. That man is Sam Burns, one of two really big complicating factors remaining for Team USA. On Saturday, from out of nowhere, Burns shot a 62 to surge into contention. He couldn’t follow it up on Sunday, but that 62 might mean more than we think. Let’s be abundantly clear about one thing: I don’t think for a second that Zach Johnson is living and dying with individual rounds. Still, in the context of who he might wantto pick, I still think it’s significant. And Burns has to be so tempting. From concrete reasons like his win at the WGC-Dell Match Play, to less critical ones like his friendship with Scottie Scheffler, to his youth, to his general team fit, Burns is somebody you theoretically want in Italy. He just hasn’t done a whole lot since the spring, and unlike Justin Thomas, he doesn’t have a stellar track record in these team events to bolster him; all he’s got is a 0-3-2 mark in last year’s Presidents Cup. The other problem for Burns is that with the staggered scoring at this week’s Tour Championship and being part of the group that starts 10 shots off the lead, it’ll be harder than ever to make an impact. But the captains will be watching “real” scores, and while I’m not ready to put Burns on the team yet, I think he’s now the first man out and the guy with the best shot to knock out Justin Thomas.

7. And, of course, we have to talk about Lucas Glover. He didn’t three-peat, which would have been the blunt force method of making the team. His T-22 finish is nothing to sneeze at, but I think it effectively cools the momentum enough that we can start to accept the reality of him not making the trip. I’ve just never seen it happening for a few different reasons, chief among them that Glover is 43, has never played in a Ryder Cup before, is only 2-6-1 in Presidents Cups and doesn’t really make a ton of sense as a pick when you have guys like Burns and Thomas who could be doing this for another decade and more. It’s harsh to say, but there’s not a real great practical reason for burning a spot on him, especially if you believe like I do that form six weeks ahead of the Ryder Cup isn’t especially relevant when you have such a deep talent bench. And what the American captains have shown in this newer, more competent era of Ryder Cup strategizing is that they are all about making very practical decisions.

8. Now, how about the guys on the rightside of the bubble? Jordan Spieth was likely safest of all, and he needed to be, because he had a very lackluster week and barely qualified for the Tour Championship. I won’t say Cam Young needed a good week, but his six under certainly came in handy in solidifying his position. Collin Morikawa and Rickie Fowler, perhaps the two most vulnerable players outside of Thomas, each shot three under, dead in the middle of the field at T-25 and have to be looking a little fearfully at Burns … and feeling pretty grateful that Glover and Bradley didn’t force the issue.

9. Last week, I said I had some “very, very vague curiosity” about Russell Henley. Well … I still do. He finished T-8 and has been quietly on fire with three straight top-10s. If form doesn’t matter for Glover, though, I can’t see it mattering for Henley either, and in the end I just think there are too many players vying for too few spots. But after writing the few sentences above, I saw this tweetand got Henley back in my head. Again, form isn’t going to count for a whole lot, but if the number crunchers find that he’s a great course fit for Marco Simone, I can just start to see him as a shock captain’s pick.

10. What of Justin Thomas? That, right there, is the hardest question to answer of the entire 2023 Ryder Cup season. We knew his public-perception stock would fall after the Wyndham as he waited at home for results to play out, and it’s definitely happening. But at the same time, things have actually played out pretty decently for him. And general opinion probably matters very little to Zach Johnson, who I’m guessing already has his mind made up about JT. (And to guess further, I bet the answer is he’s in.) Nobody came out and outright stole his spot away, and it easily could have happened. For me, I keep going back to his 16-5-3 record in these team competitions. How do you keep him out?

With all that, here’s where we stand with just a week to go before we know the full team:

Automatically qualified, full stop: Scottie Scheffler, Wyndham Clark, Brian Harman, Patrick Cantlay, Max Homa, and Xander Schauffele
Slipped out of automatically qualifying, still fine barring an ideological shocker: Brooks Koepka
Safely in, but uninspiring of late: Jordan Spieth
Still in, but still nervous: Justin Thomas
Good side of the bubble: Cam Young, Rickie Fowler, Collin Morikawa
Bad side of the bubble: Sam Burns, Lucas Glover
Really bad side of the bubble: Keegan Bradley
Goodnight: Tony Finau, Denny McCarthy, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau

Selection Format: The Europeans have two lists—the European Points and World Points. Three players qualify from each list, which means that for the first time Europe’s captain (Luke Donald) will have six picks to fill out his roster. Current standings here.

The impregnable duo who would not be left out barring death and maybe not even then: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm
Currently qualified and definitely in: Viktor Hovland, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood
Won’t qualify, obviously in: Shane Lowry
In, but with potential question marks: Matt Fitzpatrick
Qualified, probably in:
Robert MacIntyre
Good side of the bubble: Adrian Meronk, Justin Rose, Alex Noren, Sepp Straka
Bad side of the bubble: Yannik Paul, Seamus Power, Victor Perez, Rasmus Hojgaard, Nicolai Hojgaard, Matt Wallace
Missed their chance: Guido Migliozzi, Adrian Otaegui

Last week, we said that Luke Donald had to be sweating to see the form of some of his top players. Now? He’s sweating less. This is the kind of week that makes a captain feel really, really good about his team. At the same time, the bottom half of this team looks more confusing than ever, and I’m not sure he has much beyond recent form and whatever stats Edoardo Molinari is cooking up to help make his choice.

1. Viktor Hovland won the BMW Championship with a ridiculous Sunday 61, Matt Fitzpatrick and Rory McIlroy were right on his tail, and Justin Rose, though he didn’t make the Tour Championship, played well. Along with those guys, Team Europe is sending Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Sepp Straka, and Jon Rahm to East Lake. None of those last four played especially well in Chicago, but if you assume all of them will make the team—Straka’s the only “maybe”—Donald has to be feeling really good about his top line.

2. But what about the final four picks? That’s where things get close to impossible. This past week on the DP World Tour, only three players with a shot at making the team played the ISPS Handa World Invitational in Northern Ireland. One of them, Robert MacIntyre, currently sitting in the sixth and final qualifying spot, but he played poorly and missed the cut. Another, Victor Perez, was somebody the captains all loved at the Hero Cup—a de facto Ryder Cup tryout for players and captains back in January—but has been ice cold since the start of the summer and also missed the cut. As far as Perez goes, a big change this week is that I think he now occupies a space even below the “bad bubble.” That left Spain’s Adrian Otaegui, a guy I declared dead last week; he finished in a tie for fourth and is maybe not quite as dead as imagined. It’s his first solid finish since May, which includes his time waiting out a month-long suspension for playing in LIV Golf events in the last year. And when you think about the history of second-fiddle type Spanish players in the Ryder Cup, from Manuel Pineiro to Jose Maria Canizares all the way to Rafa Cabrera Bellow, it has to be tempting to give Rahm a Spanish Armada style partner in Italy. Tempting, but not yet practical.

3. Nobody else showed up! I’m not sure how much to make of this, but if you were a bubble player and wanted to make the Ryder Cup team, wouldn’t you play? Yannik Paul and Adrian Meronk, in particular, are right on MacIntyre’s tail, and would have had a golden opportunity to catch him at the Handa. Instead, they get the same exact number of points he did—a big goose egg. I’m finding it hard to understand this, especially because the DP World Tour was on a break the last two weeks, so they already had plenty of time off. Sure, there’s a grueling stretch coming up, but there are only two more events that “count” before Donald makes his picks on Sept. 4. You’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot.

4. If this all seems a little reactive, it’s because it has to be. Luke Donald has said time and time again, including to me at the Wyndham and even more recently on the “Beyond the Clubhouse” podcast, that there are spots open on the team, and nobody looking at the bunched up group near the bottom could draw any other conclusion. Zach Johnson doesn’t have to obsess about hyper-recent form, but after the top eight, what is Donald supposed to do? You’re basically just choosing between potential rookies with no history and very little information, so you might as well pick the guys who are hottest.

5. As such, it’s a little hard to say that much of anything has changed for Europe this week. I’m sure Sepp Straka wishes he had played a bit better in Chicago, since he’s the only player left in the FedEx Cup playoffs whose spot on Team Europe might not be secure, and I bet Donald feels the same way. But when you consider that guys like the Hojgaards and Matt Wallace stayed home, along with Paul and Meronk, everything looks static.

6. One thing we can set in stone: It’s obituary time for Seamus Power, who finished 48th out of 50 in Chicago, was equally rough in Memphis and before that missed the cut or WD’d in four of five events. Sorry … but goodbye, Seamus.

7. Are we ever-so-slightly intrigued by Alex Fitzpatrick? Shows out at the Open, wins a Challenge Tour event, then notches a solo second at the Handa? AND is in the field at the Czech Masters? Folks, I am following this with GREAT interest. Congrats, Alex, you have been promoted to the bad side of the bubble.

Here’s where we stand now:

The impregnable duo who would not be left out barring death and maybe not even then: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm
Currently qualified and definitely in: Viktor Hovland, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood
Won’t qualify, obviously in: Matt Fitzpatrick, Shane Lowry
Newly off the bubble and in: Justin Rose
Qualified, probably in:
Robert MacIntyre
Good side of the bubble: Adrian Meronk, Alex Noren, Sepp Straka
Bad side of the bubble: Yannik Paul, Rasmus Hojgaard, Nicolai Hojgaard, Adrian Otaegui, Alex Fitzpatrick
Extremely bad side of the bubble: Victor Perez, Matt Wallace
Missed their chance: Guido Migliozzi, Seamus Power

The good news is, this week’s Czech Masters field is loaded with everyone on the list above who isn’t at the Tour Championship, except for Migliozzi and Power and Alex Noren (Noren’s absence is a huge head-scratcher). We’ll even get to see Shane Lowry attempt to prove he has some kind of form. Oh, and Ludvig Aberg, who everyone is mad at me for not including on these lists, is also playing! Maybe he wins and makes the team! It’s going to be a blast, and you get the feeling one of these guys is going to fight his way onto the team.

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