On Tuesday, Zach Johnson will reveal his Team USA Ryder Cup captain’s picks. We used our course-specific FRACAS data for Marco Simone Golf & Country Club to consider the cases of 11 golfers.
As was the case five years ago in Paris, where the United States squad was demolished, Europe selected this course – and will set it up accordingly – to favor precision over length and strength. Hitting fairways and greens will be at a big premium over grip it and rip it, and par will more often than not be a desirable score on any given hole.
For example, big bombers Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau combined for a 2-9-1 record at the 2018 Ryder Cup and had as many victories as fairway-finding Webb Simpson. Thus, the course-specific FRACAS (Field Rating and Course-Adjusted Strokes gained) for Marco Simone Golf & Country Club is a bit above average for players such as Russell Henley and Patrick Cantlay. It also means players who are a bit more conservative and reliable ball strikers instead of those who regularly go for broke could be more desirable for captain Zach Johnson if Team USA are to win on European soil for the first time since 1993.
When we run our tournament simulations, we model the likelihood of each possible hole score for each player on every hole. Par-or-better percentage is the percentage of holes where the player is expected to score a par or better, while birdie-or-better percentage is the percentage of holes where the player is expected to score a birdie or better.
Par-or-better percentage would identify the ‘safe’ players, whereas birdie-or-better percentage can represent the more highly-volatile guys – but also ones who could pull off an upset if they’re behind. That also identifies golfers with a higher ceiling, but at Marco Simone, a floor that doesn’t go too low would seemingly be more important due to the variability of the course. Thus, Johnson may want to focus more on guys who are consistent instead of flashy – which somewhat described him as a player during his heyday. Bottom line is that he may want guys who simply aren’t going to make mistakes – see par or better – especially considering Team USA already seems to have the edge when it simply comes to raw talent.
The six automatic qualifiers for Team USA all rank among the top 11 in the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) – Scottie Scheffler, Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Max Homa, Brian Harman and Wyndham Clark. And if Johnson wanted to, he could take his entire team from the OWGR’s top 20 with Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Cameron Young, Keegan Bradley, Tony Finau and Collin Morikawa all between 11 and 20. Conversely, Team Europe captain Luke Donald will almost certainly have to dip outside the top 50, though his big four of Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Fitzpatrick is as good as anything their opponents can offer.
Yet, the decision on who Johnson takes with his six captain’s picks won’t come down solely to world rankings or Ryder Cup standings because he must factor in the types of players he needs for this format, and more importantly, this course. Marco Simone will be punishing if a fairway is missed, and scrambling from the rough should be a key. Only two par-5 holes will come into play most of the time because of the course’s three par-5s, one is the 18th hole – which won’t be seen for a large majority of the matches.
Clearly, Johnson has some very tough decisions to make. Based on FRACAS and other key statistics along with some obvious key factors, here’s a summary of virtually all the contenders to fill those six spots.
Players Likely to Get Picked
A no-brainer despite no wins in 2023, and – amazingly – only two since 2018. However, Spieth has seven top 10 finishes this season, and maybe as importantly, he’s been part of four Ryder Cups and four Presidents Cups, winning six of them. Granted, frequent playing partner and close pal Justin Thomas might not be with him for this go-round, but Spieth is a team player who can be a good partner for almost anyone.
His FRACAS for Marco Simone (1.141) is about the same as his overall average (1.162). The marginally lower number for the course means he’s ever so slightly less suited for this course than the average course, but where he stands out even more among the key metrics is his par-or-better percentage at this course. His 76.4% is eighth highest of any American, and the only ones ahead of him who aren’t automatic qualifiers are Russell Henley and Talor Gooch. Par reliability will be a key factor for Johnson’s selection process.
A No. 10 ranking in the Ryder Cup standings would seemingly put Morikawa on the bubble, but he should be a lock despite being winless since The Open Championship in 2021. Besides displaying good recent form, including a sudden-death loss at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in early July, what should make Morikawa an easy call is that he’s one of the most accurate ball strikers in the world and at his best under pressure. Besides winning two majors before turning 25, he went 3-0-1 in his only Ryder Cup appearance.
The 20th-ranked player in the world is not particularly long off the tee but constantly finds fairways – No. 2 on the PGA Tour this year in driving accuracy – and that’s far more important at Marco Simone than bombing it. He’s also top five in greens in regulation, exemplifying why his FRACAS for this course is the fifth highest of any American and top among any of the options Johnson has for a captain’s pick.
Have him tee off on the even holes in the alternate shot format, and that keeps Morikawa off the box on five of the course’s six longest holes.
His FRACAS for Marco Simone is far lower than his regular course average – a difference that ranks 42nd among Americans – but Fowler’s career-resurrecting season could seemingly be enough for Johnson to give him the nod. Plus, his actual FRACAS ranks eighth among all US players because of his solid tee-to-green play. Eight top 10 finishes, including a win, this season – not to mention he shared the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open – are among the reasons he’s an odds-on favorite to get selected.
Yet, he is only 3-7-5 all-time in the Ryder Cup, and he doesn’t rank among the top 12 Americans in par-or-better percentage OR birdie-or-better at Marco Simone. However, he is still terrific with the flatstick, ranking ninth on the PGA Tour in putting average. Plus, he generally avoids mistakes – for example, Fowler ranks 22nd this year in bogey avoidance – and that should be a big key on this golf course.
Players Who Might Get Picked
Hard not to address the elephant in the ‘team’ room, and that is Koepka. He’s clearly the only LIV-playing candidate for the Team USA squad, and Johnson hasn’t been a fan of those who defected. Koepka would have been an automatic qualifier until Schauffele knocked him out of the top six at the BMW Championship. The fact Koepka is even ranked seventh is astonishing considering he wasn’t garnering points for any LIV Golf events, but the PGA Championship win and Masters runner-up proved he’s back at the top of his game, even though his most recent major – and the one that took place on European soil – was a T-64 at Royal Liverpool in The Open Championship.
And therein lies the least bit of doubt when it comes to Johnson picking Koepka if you put aside any animosity team members have for a player who wasn’t particularly well-liked to begin with and then ditched the PGA Tour. Koepka simply isn’t a great fit for this course. It’s not a bomber’s paradise and he can be wild off the tee, proven by the fact his par-or-better percentage of 75.9% for this course ranks 17th among Americans – a spot below Bryson DeChambeau. The world’s 13th-ranked player is terrific on par-5s, but as mentioned, there will often only be two of them played in this year’s Ryder Cup rounds.
He’s pretty boring, and while that’s not usually a compliment, it’s great for a Ryder Cup. Henley is a par machine who hits fairways and greens and is a solid putter. Top of the PGA Tour this season in driving accuracy, Henley is the opposite of why Europe picked this course – because he’ll avoid the rough off the tee and be happy with pars. Many of those pars could turn into birdies if his putter gets hot because he’ll frequently have 15-30 footers remaining after hitting greens in regulation. Plus, he’s one of the most in-form players in the world with a run of three straight top-10 finishes leading up to the Tour Championship.
The only knock on the 34-year-old is that he’s never appeared in the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, and has performed poorly at the Match Play Championship (6-10-1 record). He’s one of a small number of candidates for Team USA whose FRACAS for Marco Simone is actually higher than his regular average. Plus, his par or better percentage and his birdie or better percentage specifically for this course both rank sixth among all Americans.
He’s the only player outside the top 20 in the US Ryder Cup standings under consideration. And with so many talented players ahead of him, why should he be considered at all? Besides the fact no one has ever disputed his raw talent – only his ability to win until he picked up five titles in the past three years – he is consistent off the tee and puts up pars.
Among the Team USA candidates, he’s No. 9 in our par-or-better percentage for this course and No. 11 in FRACAS. Basically, he’s solid but unspectacular, which may be exactly what Johnson is looking for. Granted, Finau hasn’t been at his best lately with only one top 10 and three missed cuts in 10 events since his April win in Mexico, but he’s a two-time participant at the Ryder Cup and is a popular partner. He’s terrific on par-4s – actually below par and in the top 25 for the season – and this course has 11 in the first 16 holes.
Players Who Could Get Picked (But Maybe Shouldn’t)
As much as it seemed like he would be a lock to make his first Ryder Cup team back in the spring, now he is on the outside looking in. Burns won the Match Play Championship in March, but he’s since had only one top 10 finish along with four missed cuts.
He’s top 20 in driving distance but not in the top 120 in driving accuracy, something that isn’t a big issue on many PGA Tour venues – and one reason his birdie-or-better percentage for this course is fifth best among Americans. However, Marco Simone punishes inaccurate driving, and that’s why his FRACAS for the course is far below his overall. He also didn’t win any of the five matches he played at last year’s Presidents Cup.
If it weren’t for Thomas’ astounding record in team competitions, he probably wouldn’t even be in the conversation. But a combined 16-5-2 mark in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup can’t overshadow the fact he’s missed the cut in half of his last 12 events, including three majors, and failed to even qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs.
His strokes gained putting and driving accuracy are as bad as they’ve ever been, ranking outside the top 125 on the PGA Tour in both. This course would usually play in Thomas’ favor because he’s been one of the better iron players on the planet – his FRACAS is actually a tad higher at Marco Simone than overall – but he’s been all over the course in 2023.
Johnson may have a soft spot in his heart for a fellow 40-something enjoying a sudden career resurgence. But keep in mind that Glover wasn’t even in this conversation as of a month ago, so that doesn’t really speak to reliability. Yet, he’s quite well liked by just about everyone on tour and could be a great influence in the team room.
However, his putting has always been his downfall until very recently – even during this PGA season, he’s 120th in putts per round – and he’s not accustomed to Ryder Cup pressure. He’s never played in this event and hasn’t been in the Presidents Cup since 2009. Glover ranks far at the bottom in par-or-better percentage for Marco Simone among US contenders at 74.2% – a whopping five percentage points below No. 1 Scheffler.
A youngster who has never won on tour, has no Ryder Cup appearances and didn’t even qualify for this year’s Tour Championship seemingly shouldn’t be an option. Yet, supposedly he’s already made the team according to vice-captain Fred Couples, who said last month: “Cam Young will be in Italy.”
Young does have a world of talent and is popular among his peers, but Couples’ comment did seem premature. Then again, it came after Young posted five top 10s from March through July, including The Masters and The Open Championship, and maybe more importantly, a runner-up finish to Sam Burns at the Match Play Championship. However, his FRACAS is among the worst for Marco Simone among any contender for the US squad as he’s a huge hitter – top three on the PGA Tour in driving distance – who is outside the top 100 in driving accuracy and hitting out of the rough. Plus, he’s 150th in strokes-gained putting. He was also 1-2-1 at the Presidents Cup in his only professional team competition.
This course wouldn’t seemingly be up Keegan’s alley. His par-or-better percentage of 75.1 is worse than any American being truly considered for the team other than Glover (74.2%). An even 1.000 FRACAS for Marco Simone is a huge drop-off from his regular course average of 1.061. His driver is often all over the place – he’s been hitting less than 60% of fairways this season – and he’s been awful hitting out of the rough.
He ranks outside the top 100 in most approach-shot categories from the thick stuff, and his scrambling is among the worst on the PGA Tour – 178th in 2023. Bradley has won twice this year, but both victories came on easy tracks – he finished at a combined 38-under in those events. The fiery Bradley does love the Ryder Cup and badly wants to make the team. He has a respectable 4-3-0 record, but he lost both of his singles matches and every win came paired with Phil Mickelson – who has zero chance of being included.
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