The 2018 PGA Tour season, one of the most thrilling seasons in recent memory, sadly came to a conclusion last Sunday. The consensus is that it ended perfectly: with the comeback season of sports legend Tiger Woods drawing an inspiring victory in front of an enormous amount of jubilant fans.
It could be argued that Tiger is now officially “back”, and with it professional golf. Not that the sport did not thrive in his absence, but Tiger brings a level of excitement that is unmatched in the sports world. There is little doubt, this was a dream ending for the PGA Tour as a brand.
In addition to the Tiger triumph, we also saw Phil Mickelson put an end to an equally long winless drought; Justin Rose win the FedExCup; Bryson DeChambeau become a star before our very eyes; and Brooks Koepka become a major championship heavyweight, among many, many other incredible stories.
Bottomline, the PGA Tour is in a great place.
The new wrap-around season begins soon, but first, the best team competition in sports takes the spotlight this week: the Ryder Cup. A fierce, brilliant showdown between the best America has to offer against Europe’s elite, the Ryder Cup truly has mass appeal. It will be watched on every inhabited inch of the globe.
This year’s edition takes place at Le Golf National in Paris, France, giving the Europeans home-course advantage in their quest to reacquire the cup they had in their possession for six years before the Americans claimed it at Hazeltine (Minnesota) in 2016.
American Captain Jim Furyk and European Captain Thomas Bjorn assume the leadership roles for this high-anticipated battle for national pride. The American side has the advantage in regards to experience, but even with five rookies, the European team is replete with elite golf talents. This will likely be one for the ages.
Captain: Jim Furyk
Vice-Captains: David Duval, Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Davis Love III, Steve Stricker
Automatic Qualifiers (in order)
2nd Appearance (3-1-0)
The 2018 PGA Tour Player of the Year Award has not yet been announced, but the 28-year-old Koepka is expected to be an easy choice. He won half the 2018 majors, despite missing the season’s first at Augusta with a wrist injury, landing in the winner’s circle at both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship.
That U.S. Open victory was his second in a row, meaning that three of the last seven majors have been won by Koepka, and three of the six he’s entered. He did not win any non-majors this season, but did post two runner-ups. He is known mostly as a power player, but also shows surprising finesse on and around the greens, although his putter was a problem for him in the recent FedExCup Playoffs.
Koepka starred as a rookie at the last Ryder Cup, posting a 3-1-0 and scoring 3 points, an amount that was bettered only by Patrick Reed among the Americans. His 5&4 blowout singles win over Danny Willett was the largest margin of victory in any of the Sunday matches. Koepka is likely to be teamed frequently with Dustin Johnson, who he has formed a close bond with over the last two years.
4th Appearance (6-5-0)
With a third place finish at last week’s Tour Championship, Dustin Johnson re-gained his spot atop the Official World Golf Rankings, a position he has held for the majority of the last two seasons. With three more victories in 2018, the 34-year-old now has an astonishing 19 career victories.
This was his third consecutive season where he finished with at least three wins. Statistically, he was a special kind of amazing this season: he finished first in par-3, par-4, and par-5 scoring, which feels like it should be impossible. He also led the Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee, strokes gained: tee-to-green, strokes gained: total, scoring average, and birdie average. His game seems to have no weaknesses.
Johnson went 2-2-0 at the last Ryder Cup, playing first with Matt Kuchar and then Brooks Koepka, the latter of which is expected to form a “Bash Brothers” duo. Johnson won his Sunday singles match 1-up over Chris Wood. It was his third singles victory in three Ryder Cup appearances, so expect him to be brought out early next Sunday, and then have little to say about the match after.
Thomas was the only automatic American qualifier who had never previously played in a Ryder Cup, but he has become so accomplished over the past two years that calling him inexperienced sounds like a misnomer.
The 25-year-old, who reached No. 1 in the world for a short period this year, was the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year in 2017 after winning five events, including his breakthrough major victory at the PGA Championship. Thomas was much less relevant in the 2018 major season, which was somewhat disappointing, but he still notched three victories in 2018 as a whole, and he finished the season with $8.7 million in earnings.
In addition to his stellar play, Thomas is extremely personable and has many friends on the Tour, meaning that he will likely bring strong team chemistry. Thomas did play for the Americans at last year’s President’s Cup, and played tremendously, accumulating a 3-1-1 record playing mostly with Rickie Fowler, a pairing we are very likely to see in Paris.
3rd Appearance (6-1-2)
Known as “Captain America,” Patrick Reed has been the star of the Americans in the last two Ryder Cups. He has been unstoppable when teamed with Jordan Spieth, and he has pulled off exceptionally dramatic singles victories: 1-up over Henrik Stenson in 2014, and the one nobody will ever forget, a highly entertaining 1-up triumph over Rory McIlroy in 2016.
The passion and vigor Reed brings to this event is unmatched.
Reed proved this season that he is not just a team-play wonder when he held off an impressive collection of contenders to win The Masters in April. That triumph was part of stretch where he had six consecutive top 10 finishes.
Since taking solo 4th at the U.S. Open, Reed has factored little into any tournament he has played. In his last eight starts, he has nothing better than a tie for 19th, and he struggled badly at last week’s Tour Championship, as his 9-over score was the third-worst in the 30 man field. His work around the greens in 2018 has been pristine, but he hits a surprisingly small amount of his fairways and greens.
Regardless of the past few months, Reed is likely the player that the Europeans fear most. He is not Captain America for nothing.
4th Appearance (3-8-0)
Bubba’s Ryder Cup record is very underwhelming, and in his most recent appearance (2014), he was the only player on the losing American side who did not notch a single point for the team. That being said, 2018 has seemed to bring out a new Bubba Watson, and it could be argued that his past record should be thrown out when discussing his chances to make a big contribution this year.
After a terrible 2017 season, Bubba’s resurgent 2018 season included three victories, with the most impressive being a blowout win at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and event that has some relevance to the Ryder Cup format. He breezed to the championship match where he obliterated Kevin Kisner 7&6.
After slumping in July and August, Bubba looked to be nearly back on track after strong showings in the second and third legs of the FedExCup Playoffs, but he was a disaster at the Tour Championship, where he finished 10-over, the second worst score in the 30 man field. We do not know quite how comfortable he is with his game right now, but what we do know is that he is one of the most passionate golfers in the world and will relish this opportunity at the Ryder Cup as much as anyone.
3rd Appearance (4-3-2)
Already a three-time major champion at the age of 25, the precocious Spieth has made an absolutely formidable team with Patrick Reed at the past two Ryder Cups, a pairing that fans are dying to see again this year (although there are whispers that Reed might be paired with Phil Mickelson instead). He has lost both of his singles matches (Henrik Stenson in 2016 and Graeme McDowell in 2014), but in the team competitions, there have been few better than the amiable and charismatic Spieth.
However, despite his tremendous profile in a short time on the PGA Tour – he has 11 career victories and spent considerable time atop the Official World Golf Rankings, Spieth is coming into Paris with a lot of questions about the state of his game.
After 10 victories from 2015 to 2017, Spieth went winless in 2018, has just one top 10 since The Masters, and has dealt with a mysterious case of the putting yips for a great part of the season. Spieth failed to make the Tour Championship for the first time in his career this year, and his mental state is a concern after he imploded on Sunday at The Open Championship, where he went from 54-hole co-leader to T9 after a birdieless final round 76.
Spieth is expected to play a strong role in the American’s Ryder Cup defense, but the confidence in him is not as high as it has been in the past two editions.
4th Appearance (2-4-5)
Fowler is one of the ultimate “team” guys. Everyone appears to love him, and he carries himself in a way that makes it appear that he loves life. Those players are indispensable in ultimate team competitions. Rickie was not great in his first two Ryder Cups, but was a valuable contributor in 2016, going 2-1-0, and winning his Sunday match despite drawing Justin Rose.
As for the state of his current game; it is hard to tell. Fowler has been subjected to a great deal of criticism for not doing more with his immense talent: at 29, he still has not won a major championship, and despite perennially being in the top 10 of the World Rankings, he only has four career victories. He missed the first two rounds of the FedExCup playoffs resting an oblique injury that he was able to contend at the PGA Championship with, but he played well in the latter two legs of the playoffs, going T8 at the BMW Championship, and T7 at the Tour Championship.
Fowler was very up-and-down at East Lake, posting stellar rounds of 65 in rounds 1 and 4, but he struggled badly in the middle rounds to take himself out of the mix. Over his last four tournaments, he has EIGHT rounds of 65 or better. If he can handle the pressure in Paris, he should be a tremendous asset for the Americans.
3rd Appearance (2-3-1)
Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images/Getty Images
Former U.S. Open Champion Simpson was one of the plethora of players ended a long winning drought this season, absolutely dominating the field in a four-stroke victory at THE PLAYERS Championship in mid-May, his first win anywhere since 2013. He frequently found himself in contention this year, and nine top-10s were a big part of the reason he was able to hold off Bryson DeChambeau for the final automatic qualifying spot.
Undoubtedly the most impressive aspect of Simpson’s recent game has been the prodigious improvement he has made with his putter. One of the players most impacted by the ban on anchored putting several years ago, his flatstick was a disaster until this season, where everything suddenly clicked and he finished a shocking 6th on Tour in strokes gained: putting. The hard work he put into turning a liability in his game to a strength likely gives Furyk a great deal of confidence in him.
Simpson failed to make the 2016 Ryder Cup Team, and played just two matches in 2014, but in that edition he did manage to halve his Sunday match against all-time European Ryder Cup great Ian Poulter, which is not an easy task.
8th Appearance (13-17-3)
THE man everyone is here to see, Tiger generated incredible excitement across the golf world when he captured first place at last week’s Tour Championship, his first victory since 2013. It gave validation to all the painstaking hard work Tiger put in to generate one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. Spinal fusion surgeries, personal scandals, chipping yips, swing changes… Tiger overcame them all and is now back to being one of the world’s greatest golfers.
Tiger will certainly be interesting to watch at the Ryder Cup. As would be expected, he has been nearly unbeatable in singles matches, not losing a Sunday match since he played Constantino Rocca as a 21-year-old in 1997. Team events, however, have not been anywhere as good for Tiger, who likely tries to take on too much as one partner after another seemed to struggle to get on the same page. It is shocking that arguably the best golfer in history has an overall losing record at the Ryder Cup.
There is optimism that the new Tiger is different. He was not healthy enough to play the 2016 Ryder Cup, but was brought on as a vice captain for Davis Love II and embraced the role much more intensely than expected. Tiger has become more humbled over the years, is friendlier to his fellow American golfers, and looks happy on the course again. With this development, Furyk has a lot of intriguing options now on how to use the hottest golfer on his team.
12th Appearance (18-20-7)
Having played in 11 previous Ryder Cups, adding the ageless Mickelson to the American roster had to feel like a no-brainer for Furyk. Unfortunately, Phil’s game has taken a sharp downturn as of late, and the chatter has increased that perhaps he should not have been named to the team in the first place.
It cannot be argued that he looked Ryder Cup caliber earlier in the year. He was frequently in contention, and like Tiger, he ended a five-year winless drought by taking first place at the WGC-Mexico Championship, taking down a red-hot Justin Thomas a playoff.
However, Phil does not have a top ten since a fifth place finish at May’s Wells Fargo Championship. He was a disaster at the U.S. Open, especially with a round 3 81 that ended up bringing considerable controversy upon the 48-year-old after purposely hitting a moving ball on the green.
He also missed the cut at the PGA Championship, and at last week’s Tour Championship, his 13-over score put him in last place. He had an excellent season overall, but he is not coming into Paris with anything resembling momentum.
The Americans are hoping that does not matter, and that Phil’s experience will bring him more success. He does not hit many fairways anymore, but he still has one of the world’s best short games.
He has unorthodox style, is not of the more well-liked players on Tour, and there is a lot of questions about whether he would be a good fit playing with anybody at the Ryder Cup, but what is undebatable is that Bryson DeChambeau is a really, really good young player.
The winner of this year’s Memorial Tournament, an event with one of the strongest fields among non-majors, was also runner-up to Rory McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and had three other top five finishes by the end of June, but after a difficult July/August, he fell just short of Webb Simpson for the final automatic qualifying spot. DeChambeau responded to that disappointment by winning the first two legs of the FedExCup Playoffs.
On the season, he had nine top 10s in 24 events, and finished third to Justin Rose and Tiger Woods in the final FedExCup Standings. It was a tremendous year for the man who just recently turned 25.
Those two playoff victories made DeChambeau an easy Captain’s Pick choice for Furyk, but as one of three rookies on the team, he is still a question mark. Early rumors are that he might end up as Tiger’s partner, a man he frequently plays practice rounds with.
DeChambeau would have a lot of eyes on him, something that has not phazed him in the past. His lack of Ryder Cup experience seems less concerning when it is mentioned that in addition to four career PGA Tour victories already, he also won the NCAA Individual Title and the U.S. Amateur, two elite events.
Another ultimate wildcard type, a 2-T4-T8 stretch to open the FedExCup Playoffs made him the designated “hot hand” as Jim Furyk used his final Captain’s Pick on the 29-year-old, passing up on a more accomplished option in Xander Schauffele, and more experienced options in Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, and Kevin Kisner.
Furyk had plenty of good reasons to pick Finau, however, and few are censuring the selection. FInau had 11 top 10s on the season, which tied Dustin Johnson for the PGA co-lead. He finished in the top 10 of the first three majors of the season, the only player to pull off that feat.
Finau is a birdie machine, and a bomber whose shot game is far from a liability. He should be very useful to Furyk, and it would not be shocking to see Finau have the kind of impact on the American team that Thomas Pieters did for the Europeans in 2016.
The concern with Finau is that, despite his plethora of high finishes, and events in contention, he has surprisingly few wins. Just one actually, and that was at the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, an opposite-field event.
Could Finau be over his head at Le Golf National? Probably not, but it helps that he has so many experienced players on his team to lean on, if he needs to.
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