The latest batch of United States Ryder Cup rankings featured interlopers. Brooks Koepka has risen to 16th position, Phil Mickelson sits 20th on the table and Patrick Reed has leaped to 33rd. The performance of LIV golfers at the Masters has reignited the Ryder Cup conversation.
The sense that Europe will not be materially harmed by defections to the LIV circuit was only endorsed by Jon Rahm’s win at Augusta National. Luke Donald will call on a Masters champion. In Rory McIlroy, Viktor Hovland, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Shane Lowry and Matt Fitzpatrick, he has the core of a formidable team.
Europe are assisted further by Justin Rose’s return to form, who recorded a top 20 finish in the first major of the year. It would already be a surprise if Rose does not book a place on the flight to Rome in September, where he will inevitably be spurred on by being overlooked by Pádraig Harrington in 2021.
Off the course, the European picture is more cloudy. Last week’s confirmation that LIV players lost their sporting arbitration case against the DP World Tour places further daylight between Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Ryder Cup backroom roles. It is impossible to foresee the English duo back on this scene.
Keith Pelley, the chief executive of the DP World Tour, has said Sergio García, Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell have foregone vice-captaincy or captaincy roles on a playing fulfilment technicality. This felt a moot point; bad blood between the tour and so many of those who flipped to the LIV format meant it already felt impossible that everyone could coexist in the biennial clash.
The future of the European captaincy has been thrown up in the air. Gaps created, certainly by Poulter, Westwood and García, will have to be filled somehow. With Tiger Woods limping towards playing obscurity, Europe will need to find a blue chip candidate to go up against this legend when he takes an inevitable step into that role for the US. As of now, the options are limited.
Zach Johnson, the US captain, faces a quandary of his own if certain players continue to excel on major platforms. The LIV problem was immaterial if none made inroads on the qualification table. “I’m not concerned about it right now,” Johnson said earlier this year. “There’s so much fluidity and uncertainty still involved.” One assumes certainty is the thing Johnson would like.
In an earlier bulletin, Johnson said: “In order to play on the Ryder Cup team, whether you’re top six or a captain’s pick, you must garner Ryder Cup points through the PGA of America. In order to garner Ryder Cup points through the PGA of America, you have to be a member of the PGA of America. The way that we’re members of the PGA of America is through the PGA Tour. I’ll let you connect the dots from there.”
But LIV golfers, banished from the PGA Tour, are still listed – and in some cases rising upwards – on the PGA of America’s qualification system.
Koepka, apparently fit again, would be an automatic Ryder Cup participant if part of the PGA Tour. Instead, LIV is his chosen competitive domain. Dustin Johnson had an insignificant Masters, but is a Ryder Cup expert. Reed did not play as the US demolished Europe at Whistling Straits last time out. However, “Captain America” is always part of the Ryder Cup conversation.
Zach Johnson may be awaiting further instruction. The US team taken off the top 12 of the rankings is strong, albeit Will Zalatoris has been lost because of back surgery. Like in Europe, the dynamic of LIV involvement in a Ryder Cup looks tricky to say the least; Davis Love III, one of Johnson’s vice-captains, has been an outspoken critic of the rebel tour. Woods is now hugely influential in the Ryder Cup and stands completely opposed to all things LIV. The PGA Tour and PGA of America are closely aligned. The PGA Tour and LIV are immersed in lawsuits.
Nonetheless, a further marker if laid down by LIV players in next month’s US PGA Championship – an event controlled by the PGA of America – would cause head scratching. Should Koepka win at Oak Hill – and that is entirely plausible – it would be safe to assume sponsors, spectators and even some team members would ask why the best players from the United States will not operate under the stars and stripes in Italy. This is the issue that may not go away.