ROCHESTER, N.Y. — In a Ryder Cup year, it's never too early to ask the big questions about what's coming in the fall. And this year, after Brooks Koepka's win at the PGA Championship, we have a really big question: Should he make the U.S. Ryder Cup team?
Before we begin in earnest, let's acknowledge that there are six spots for automatic qualification, and with the win at Oak Hill, Koepka moved into second place on that list. You get lots of points for winning a major, and he'll have two more chances to rack up even more points at the U.S. Open and Open Championship. If he finishes in the top six, this question is moot—he makes the team.
But it's also worth noting that there are a ton of chances for Americans on the PGA Tour to accumulate points, and if Koepka, who plays for LIV Golf, were to miss the cut at the last two majors, he could definitely slip outside the top six. Phil Mickelson is a good example of a player who won a major in a Ryder Cup year (2021) and not only fell out of automatic qualification, but wasn't chosen by captain Steve Stricker to play. (And this was before LIV Golf was a legitimate thing.) It can happen.
So let's frame this under that set of circumstances: Koepka is a major winner who ends up needing a captain's pick from U.S. skipper Zach Johnson. Should he get one?
The immediate reaction, on the heels of his major win is: Uhhh, yeah, of course! At the two biggest tournaments of the year so far, he's been the best American player! Why wouldn't you want the best American player on the team? If winning is the main goal, as we know it is, this feels like a no-brainer.
Zach Johnson, a Team USA Ryder Cup assistant in 2021, congratulates Brooks Koepka after his Sunday singles win at Whistling Straits.
Darren Carroll/PGA of America
And while we can't get a read on Johnson—he did an expert tap dance around the subject at Oak Hill, calling any speculation "premature"—Scottie Scheffler, first on the automatic qualifying list by more than two times the points Koepka has, said that he only cared about winning and wouldn't object to a LIV player on the team. If there's a world in which the players are OK with it, maybe it's not as controversial as it seems on the surface.
In three Ryder Cups, Koepka has been solid, if not great, with a 6-5-1 record. Still, if we fast forward to September and his form resembles something like we saw this weekend, there's no doubt he would be of benefit to the team at the matches outside of Rome, especially since the Americans have to go to Europe to win, a mission so hard they haven't pulled it off in 30 years.
In short, the argument for including him is the easiest one to make. But, to quote Lee Corso, "Not so fast." This isn't quite the open-and-shut case it seems. (In the argument that follows, we'll ignore the morality issues at play with LIV Golf, largely because it seems unlikely that these philosophical debates would play any huge role in such a decision.)
Why is it more complicated than a simple "yes"? Because there's something to be said for solidarity. A major factor in the U.S. Ryder Cup resurgence of the last six years, complete with two blowout victories at home, is that the team learned some hard strategic and psychological lessons from the past. Koepka still seems to be well liked by his peers, and certainly respected as a competitor, but it doesn't change the fact that he's on a breakaway tour that stands in direct opposition and poses an existential crisis to the PGA Tour. LIV Golf is suing the PGA Tour. No matter how Koepka distances himself, he's part of that; being paid by them, driving profit for them. Even if they smile and get along, there's a de facto conflict here, and the U.S. leadership at Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups has been masterful at diminishing conflict. There's very much a question of whether adding someone like Koepka is worth it, or if they even need him in this new era of success.
There's also a competitive imbalance worth mentioning. In Europe, the Ryder Cup is managed by the DP World Tour, and most European players in the course of the schism withdrew their memberships from that tour after sanctions were imposed on them, and in some cases paid a fine. The minute they resigned, their Ryder Cup eligibility was at an end. It was technically possible for them to retain membership, and with it eligibility—Thomas Pieters and Paul Casey have thus far done so—but practically it doesn't compare to the American situation; most LIV golfers with DP World Tour ties aren’t going to be eligible to play.
In the U.S., the PGA of America runs the Ryder Cup, not the PGA Tour, and thus the PGA Tour is powerless to impose any kind of Ryder Cup ban. The American players on LIV start in the hole because they can't earn points in actual PGA Tour events (only majors), but they're still eligible for captain's picks and can still play their way into automatic qualifying through the majors. You can't do anything about automatic qualifying, but is it "fair" for Johnson to use his captain's picks on a LIV player when Luke Donald and Team Europe are prevented from doing so? Is it OK to exploit an imbalance that arises from the circumstance of which governing body oversees which team?
"Fair" is a relative term here, and it doesn’t appear that there's a definitive answer to the problem of Koepka ... at least right now. And let’s introduce one more argument that potentially falls in his favor: If he continues to play at a major championship level in the U.S. Open and the Open Championship, but somehow slips below automatic qualification, it's possible to see a reality where leaving him off becomes a bigger story—and thus a bigger distraction—than keeping him on.
But we can also see Johnson and his vice captains struggling with the idea of leaving off a tour player such as Tony Finau or Harris English or Sam Burns in favor of a LIV defector. No matter how good Koepka is, he didn't stand with the pack when the great divide came. That might count for a lot more than we think.
If I'm starting to sound like a man without a definite conclusion, and like someone who wouldn't want to face the tough decision that could be coming Zach Johnson's way, you've got me pegged. This is about as hard as it gets, and when it comes to the hard inner circle discussions and the consequences on either side of the final choice, well, that's all theirs.