Why Tom Watson Should Be Adding And Not Subtracting Ryder Cup Captain's Picks

March 20, 2013

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Tom Watson announced today that he is reducing his 2014 Ryder Cup captain’s picks from 4 to 3. The numbers show he should be doing the opposite.


Over the last 20 years, the captain’s picks have greatly outperformed the players that get automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup teams.





Watson’s decision seems to be based on fairness. He stated, “I think giving players the opportunity to earn a spot on merit is the right thing to do.” While this is a noble sentiment, the statistics suggests the captain’s intuition and subjective judgment may be the better approach. In a way, the numbers suggest the the U.S. should not want him to be fair, the U.S. should want him to be Tom Watson!


Of course this is not to call Watson unfair. It should not be surprising that an experienced golf professional’s intuition and sense can outperform a likely inaccurate, stagnant and arbitrary system of selection based on prize money. If the proposed criteria were based on more advanced statistics, that would be a more interesting discussion.



Interestingly, even Watson’s prior pick when he was Ryder Cup Captain in 1993 shows the importance of captain’s picks. Watson selected the then 51-year old Senior Tour (as it was then called) player Raymond Floyd to join the team. There was only one captain’s pick back then. Granted, Floyd was already a Hall of Famer at the time (inducted in 1989). Even so, despite his Senior Tour wins in 92 and 93, he had only one PGA Tour win over the prior 6-plus years. Watson’s judgment and intuition proved successful and Floyd played great compiling a record of 3-1-0 and thus part of earning 3 points for the U.S. team, including his singles match, on route to a U.S. victory.


Watson in his announcement today also indicated that Paul Azinger, who introduced the switch from 2 to to 4 captain’s picks in 2008, as being “behind this 100%.” I suspect Azinger is simply being a team player because he must know the statistics show the captain’s picks outperform the players automatically put on the team.


Consider the results in the chart below. Note that the last column on the right introduces a new measure I created called the Return On Investment Per Match (ROIPM). This takes into account the flaw in the typical “Ryder Cup record” format which makes no distinction between singles matches and the team format matches. I will describe ROIPM in further detail later but for now, realize that it essentially gives singles matches the weight of a full point; alternate shot and four-ball matches are only giving half the value to an individual player because the player only makes up half of the pairing for such a match.



This result is also not just a fluke because of the small sample size of the past three Ryder Cups. In fact, if one looks at Ryder Cups going back 20 years to 1993, the performance of captain’s picks is even better.





Like making a fire, managing a baseball team and sex, most guys think they can do it better than the other guy. Unlike those pastimes, the responsibilities of the Ryder Cup captain seem a little less involved; however, the decisions that do have to be made may require more nuance and experience (I’m not sure what this says about my ability to make fires).


There are many photos of the captain looking serious in a rain suit with a walkie-talkie and earpiece. Realistically, there is very little left to do once the players are on the course. There certainly seems to be no technical coaching and there does not seem to be much more in terms of strategy. For Ryder Cups, the players need to win. No amount of “captaining” changes the fact that the players need to drive the ball in the fairway, hit irons onto the green and most importantly, make putts.


But you and I know already know that.


In the spirit of Sabermetrics and the new math geeks in sports, let’s do some analysis ourselves on Ryder Cup results. To start, what are the actual decisions a Ryder Cup captain can make?


The Ryder Cup captain’s job appears to boil down to the following:


  1. Makes the Captains Picks;
  2. Decided who to play in the team matches;
  3. Look serious and concerned; and
  4. Don’t pick rain suits that leak.


In fact, the Ryder Cup captain has very little to do on the final Sunday with the 12 singles matches. Unlike the President’s Cup, the Ryder Cup captain does not get even a moderate amount of input to match his players with the players put forward by the other team. Each captain simply puts his players forward in his selected order and the players match up (one through twelve) with the 12 players put in by the other captain. From a measurement standpoint, this may be a good thing. The Ryder Cup records are more random this way because the best players are not always matched against the other team’s best. This randomness in fact serves out purposes introducing somewhat less bias in the players’ records.


This article will focus on what appears to be the most important job of a captian: making the captain's picks.





We looked at the past 10 Ryder Cups going back to 1993. Since that time, Europe has won seven (7) and only lost three (3). It is not surprising that the European players tend to have better records than the Americans. However, it has not been because of the captain's picks.


First, we have to decide how to measure a player’s performance. As noted above, a player that wins a singles match is likely providing more value from an individual standpoint than a player that wins a four-ball (or alternate shot) match with a partner. This of course assumes a player is 50% responsible for a win or loss in a four-ball (or alternate shot match). This may or may not be true but let’s leave the more complicated analysis as to whether a player is unusually good or bad in paired format matches to a later date. For now, let’s assume that ultimately, it averages out that a player contributes equally to a win or loss in his paired format matches.


Historically, a player’s success in Ryder Cup’s is measured by his record in matches i.e. Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley each went 3-1-0 in 2012 and they are remembered for their great play together and enthusiasm. They each won three matches, lost one match and had no ties.



The somewhat quieter Jason Dufner also went 3-1-0. However, Jason Dufner’s 3-1-0 was much more valuable, as an individual statistic, than Mickelson’s and Bradley’s because Dufner won his singles match. Mickelson and Keegan lost their singles matches on Sunday. A player’s typical Ryder Cup record does not reflect this difference. Consider: if Mickelson and Bradley had lost one of their paired format matches and each won their singles match, they each would have the same individual records of 3-1-0. The difference? In that scenario, the USA would have won the 2012 Ryder Cup.


A better way to consider the value of a player is to only assign a value of 0.5 for paired format matches and a full value of 1.0 for a singles match victory. Thus, when a player plays 4 matches in a Ryder Cup, we should look at that as playing for and potentially contributing 2.5 points (1.0 points for the mandatory singles match plus another 1.5 points for the three paired format matched each worth 0.5 points).


Also recognize in this approach, if a player halves a paired format match, then the player is returning only .25 points for purposes of his ROIPM (i.e. 50% of the possible .50 actual points for the individual when he halves such a match).


Looking at it this way, Mickelson and Bradley each contributed 1.5 points to Team USA and Dufner contributed 2.0 points. As mentioned above, a half point is a significant difference considering a team needs only 14.5 points to win the Ryder Cup outright (recall the team defending the title retains the title in the event of a 14-14 tie).


[next: Calculating A Player's Return On Investment Per Match (ROIPM)]


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