Looking at the best and worst Ryder Cup captain's picks

By Brian Mull
Published on
Looking at the best and worst Ryder Cup captain's picks

The Ryder Cup has become a highly anticipated biennial event on the golf calendar. Since 1979, Europe leads 10-7-1 and has won the last three matches.

While most players qualify for the Ryder Cup by accumulating points on their respective tours or via the official world ranking, the final spots are selected by the captain. These picks receive the most scrutiny - praise or criticism - from media and golf fans.

U.S. captains haven’t done a poor job. They began making picks to augment the qualifiers in 1989 and the all-time record of those selections is 47-44-20. Europe, which started selecting wildcards in 1979, has a record of 65-67-13.

But Europe has dominated the Ryder Cup for the last 20 years, winning 8 of 10. There are obvious reasons: Europe has enjoyed world class golfers who are seasoned, gritty competitors that thrive in match play. The captains have also played a significant role in the team’s success. In those last 10 Ryder Cups, the European wildcard selections (or captain’s picks) compiled a record of 39-28-12. Their American counterparts had a 36-35-19 mark in the same span.

In the five Ryder Cups held from 2004 to 2012, Europe’s captains were on point. Their wildcard selections recorded a 25-11-7 mark as Europe won four of the five matches.

Altogether since 1995 when Europe’s dominance began, its wildcards produced 45 points (out of a possible 79). U.S. produced 45.5 (out of 90)* - (see bottom for information on history of the captain’s picks / wildcard selections for each side).

Which captains fared best (or worst)? Let’s take a closer look:


2006 - Ian Woosnam, Europe (6-0-2)

The wee Welshman, who played on every European team from 1983 to 1997, seized his chance to lead the side. He selected stalwarts Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke. They rewarded his faith by roaring through the matches undefeated, 6-0-2, at the K Club in Ireland as Europe rolled to a 18.5 - 9.5 rout. It remains the best performance by two wildcards on either side.

Woosnam sent his wildcards out together on Friday and Saturday in the morning fourballs and they delivered a pair of victories, taking down world No. 1 Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk on Friday and world No. 2 Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco on Saturday.

It was an emotional week for Clarke, whose wife, Heather, had succumbed to breast cancer roughly a month earlier.

1993 - Tom Watson, U.S. (5-2-1)

Watson, who played on the 1989 squad that battled Europe to a tie, led the Americans back to the Belfry with two fiery veterans in tow. Their experience was invaluable. Raymond Floyd - at 51 the oldest team member in history and captain of the ‘89 squad - posted a 3-1-0 mark while Lanny Wadkins, who was competing in his eighth and final Ryder Cup went 2-1-1.

The U.S. trailed by one point entering Sunday’s singles, but Floyd never flinched. Although he was 23 years older than Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal he defeated him 2-up to clinch the Cup. Wadkins, playing in the anchor match, halved with Sam Torrance after it was clear the Cup was coming back across the Atlantic.

2004 - Bernhard Langer, Europe (5-2-1)

In yet another European rout, 10-time Ryder Cup team member Bernhard Langer made the right call, going with steady fairway finders Colin Montgomerie and Luke Donald at rough laden Oakland Hills CC in Michigan. One could argue it hardly mattered as the U.S. gave in early in an 18.5 - 9.5 blowout that remains the Americans worst defeat on home soil.

Monty went 3-1-0 and sank the clinching putt. Donald was 2-1-1 in his Ryder Cup debut.

2012 - Jose Maria Olazabal, Europe (5-3-0)

The Ryder Cup is a team event. But in these matches at Medinah outside Chicago, one golfer turned the momentum toward his team just as their chances seemed slim. That was England’s Ian Poulter of course, who made every clutch putt in a Saturday rally that enabled Europe to slice the deficit from 10-4 to 10-6 entering Sunday.

He needed a pick from Captain Olazabal just to make the 12-man team.

In singles, Poulter fought hard on the back nine to defeat U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson 1-up. It triggered an amazing comeback, which tied the Americans effort at Brookline in 1999. Poulter finished 4-0-0, giving him the best record of any wildcard in Ryder Cup history. (American captain Davis Love III’s pick Dustin Johnson was 3-0-0 at Medinah).



1981 - John Jacobs, Europe (2-6-0)

In the infancy of the Ryder Cup’s most competitive era, Jacobs chose Peter Oosterhuis, who was playing primarily in the U.S., and Mark James. They weren’t much help as the Americans breezed to a 18.5 - 9.5 victory at Walton Heath Golf Club in Surrey, England. Oosterhuis won six singles matches in an illustrious career, but was 0-3-0 in this edition.

1985 - Tony Jacklin, Europe (2-5-0)

The quintessential English gentleman, Jacklin, is rightfully remembered as the captain who lifted Europe’s Ryder Cup fortunes. He led this team to a landmark 16.5 - 11.5 victory at the Belfry. It was Europe’s first victory since 1957. But it wasn’t Jacklin’s wildcards who led the way. Jose Rivero, Ken Brown and Nick Faldo managed just two points out of a possible seven.

2014 - Tom Watson, U.S. (2-5-2)

The two-time U.S. captain heard the praise in 1993 and felt the heat 21 years later. The Americans failed to capture the magic Watson always found in Scotland during his playing days. The Europeans strolled to a convincing 16.5 - 11.5 victory at Gleneagles. Watson selected three wildcards from a crowded field - and each headed home with a losing record. Keegan Bradley couldn’t regain his rookie Ryder Cup form, Hunter Mahan struggled to a 1-2-1 mark and Webb Simpson managed a half-point in two matches. (As an aside, European captain Paul McGinley’s wildcard selections also had a 2-5-1 mark in 2014).

1995 - Lanny Wadkins, U.S. (2-4-1)

This is the Ryder Cup most affected by the captains. The decisive match came down to European wildcard Nick Faldo against U.S. captain’s pick Curtis Strange, who was a controversial pick. He was a Wake Forest alum, like Wadkins, and while he’d won the 1989 U.S. Open at host course Oak Hill, he had not won since. Strange never found form, losing all three matches. None was more painful than the singles match. He bogeyed the final three holes to lose to Faldo 1-down. It gave the Englishman revenge for his 1988 U.S. Open playoff loss to Strange and allowed Europe to recapture the Cup, 14.5 - 13.5.

Wadkins’ other pick that week? Fred Couples who was 2-1-1.

Notes on the history of captain's picks / wildcard:

*- From 1979-1987 only Europe had wildcards - two in 1979 and 1981, none in 1983, three in 1985 and 1987.

From 1989 - 1993, U.S. had two selections and Europe had three wildcards. (European Tour Order of Merit used, more of their top players (Faldo, Olazabal) were playing U.S. PGA Tour fulltime).

From 1995-2006 each side had two picks / wildcards.

From 2008 - 2012, U.S. had four picks; Europe had two in 2008, three in 2010 and two in 2012

Both sides had three picks in 2014.

(in 2016, U.S. has four and Europe has three).