How Successful Are Wildcard Picks In The Ryder Cup?

The 2016 Ryder Cup is only one month away and the final team places are on the verge of completion. With Europe winning nine of the last 11 editions, the USA team have taken extra care with their preparation for the 2016 contest by creating a ‘Task Force’. However, just how important have the ‘wildcards’ been in recent years? Have they justified their selection with the number of points won? Which format have they succeeded in most and in which years have they contributed the most overall team points?

The European teams’ automatic spots have been confirmed, leaving Captain Darren Clarke to choose his three wildcards over the coming weeks. The American teams’ qualification system has been altered for this year’s edition – a decision made by their Task Force. Captain Davis Love will choose four players this year, with three being announced on September 11th following the conclusion of The BMW Championship. Furthermore, the final spot will be decided after the climax of The Tour Championship – the final event before the Ryder Cup. This qualification amendment has taken place as a result of the previous Ryder Cup, where Billy Horschel won the overall FedEx Cup - including two victories and a runner-up in the playoff events - but missed out on qualification as it had finished after The PGA Championship in mid-August.

Since 1995, the USA have selected six more wildcards compared to Europe, resulting in an average of three per Ryder Cup compared to Europe’s two. The USA used two captain picks from 1995 to 2006, where they lost five of the six editions and as a result increased the picks to four. This helped lead to a rare victory, and so the format was kept for the next two editions, which they subsequently lost. In an attempt to change the formula yet again, they decreased to three picks, and once more were the losing team - hence why the Task Force was created.

Europe however, have only selected more than two picks once, which came at the ‘Miracle in Madinah’ in 2012. With Clarke deciding on three picks again for the away contest, could this prove to be the winning formula yet again?

The European wildcards have been most successful in the foursome format – resulting in 17 wins, four draws and only eight losses. The fourball matches have been an even contest with 15 wins, 12 losses and only five draws. However, the singles has been the biggest weakness amongst the wildcards – with only seven wins, five draws and ten losses.

The USA wildcards have performed the opposite, in the sense that their main weakness is in the foursomes – with only 11 wins, three draws and a mammoth 19 losses. However, the fourballs have yielded 13 wins, nine draws and just eight losses. Furthermore, the singles has also been strong – with 12 wins, six draws and eight losses.

Overall, there is nothing to choose between the performances from the wildcards of USA and Europe. With the USA having picked more wildcards over the past 20 years than Europe, it is not a surprise that they have had more possible points (89) than Europe (83). Furthermore, the number of wildcard points scored from both teams averages at five, more than half of the points available.

During 2008, USA used their captain’s picks more than in the previous six editions, which interlinked with the increase in number of picks selected; this tactic was then used for the following two contests. However, in 2014 – even with three picks – the number of points available was reduced, demonstrating in a lack of trust in those selected.

However, Europe have been consistent in their picks and available matches, although their highest total in 2010 followed a team defeat in 2008, which may have resulted from a change of approach in order to win the cup back.

The graph demonstrates the number of points won by the wildcards collectively during each year, and the difference of the total team score. The two highest overall team scores in 2004 and 2006 of 18.5 perhaps naturally coincides with the two highest wildcard points of 5.5 and 7 respectively, whereby the whole team performed to their maximum. Notably, the weakest showing by the European wildcards was during the last contest at Gleneagles; nevertheless, Europe were still triumphant. Significantly, the biggest point contribution in relation to overall team points was in 2008, when Europe were beaten (a difference of 6.5 points).

The increase of wildcards in 2008 was justified when they produced the highest number of points from any team. They scored 8.5 of the team total of 13.5 in 2010, highlighting the rest of the side’s poor play. Additionally, the average overall wildcard points is equal to Europe on five, and the difference between total team points and wildcard points (8) is far better than Europe’s (11). In general, the USA captain picks have done what has been asked of them – win points – but the automatic qualification players have not produced their best golf consistently enough, unlike the Europeans.

Of the wildcards selected since 1995, Lee Westwood has been the most successful, scoring a total of six point from a possible nine in just two picks. With Westwood not automatically qualifying for the 2016 edition, it seems a safe and wise decision to select him this time around. With Poulter out injured and playing a role as assistant captain this year, it may have been a flip of a coin between the two stalwarts.

Hunter Mahan has been selected as a wildcard twice and scored five points out of a possible eight, whilst Stewart Cink has yielded 6.5 points from a possible 13 in his three wildcard picks. However, with both players having poor seasons, a captain’s pick this time around is not likely.

In summary, Europe’s domination of the Ryder Cup since 1995 has allowed their wildcards to not perform to their maximum without it affecting the team score, but their contribution has been consistent nevertheless. Alternatively, USA captain picks have risen to the occasion more often than not, but their big names – often higher in the world rankings – have not produced when it has mattered most. With the ‘Task Force’ coming in and creating a new blueprint and with Europe having so many rookies, are we about to see a change in USA’s fortune?