All-time best US Ryder Cup Team based on playing record

The Ryder Cup's trophy is presented during a press conference on october 17, 2017 in Paris. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)
The Ryder Cup's trophy is presented during a press conference on october 17, 2017 in Paris. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images) /

This is supposed to be a Ryder Cup year, with play scheduled for September 22-27 at Whistling Straits. We’re still awaiting the Captain’s picks, but with PGA Tour play currently suspended, the final roster, like the event itself, is still in flux.

While we all hope this Coronavirus pandemic will be under control by late September, it’s possible we’ll miss out on all four Majors and the Ryder Cup. That would be a devastating outcome for fans and players alike.

In this vacuum of golf news, I’ve found myself looking back at golf history for stories and nuggets to stay connected with the game we all love. With that in mind, I present the All-Time U.S. Ryder Cup Team.

Each Ryder Cup team has 12 players. The Captain assigns the players in Fourball, Foursomes, and Individual matches to give their team the best chance of reaching 14.5 points to clinch the Cup.

In looking over the all-time records of the U.S. team, I expected the names of Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino, Hagen and other Hall of Famers to dominate the rankings. And they did. But interestingly, there were more than a couple of names I did not expect to see.

Without further ado, I present the all-time best U.S. Ryder Cup Team.

I’ve broken this U.S. Ryder Cup Team into four sections:

The Obvious Picks

The Surprising Picks

The Contenders

The “What About” Players.

Let’s start off with the obvious picks. The ones who have to be on the team, with little to no argument about it.

The Obvious Picks (Ryder Cup Match Record)

Jack Nicklaus (17-8-3)

Arnold Palmer (22-8-2)

Walter Hagen (7-1-1)

Lee Trevino (17-7-6)

Sam Snead (10-2-1)

Tom Watson (10-4-1)

These six men have a combined 57 Major victories. That’s nuts. They also have 34 Ryder Cups and 127 matches under their collective belts. That’s the kind of experience and performance I want at the top of my team.

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I don’t think anyone will argue with Nicklaus and Palmer. Their records and accomplishments are unimpeachable. I would also throw Hagen into that group. He won 11 Majors, including four British Opens and two U.S. Opens. Hagen is widely considered the best Match Play golfer ever with his five PGA Championships before that tournament converted to Medal play.

Trevino, Snead, and Watson are close behind with loads of experience and impressive records. I also like this mix of personalities. Nicklaus and Watson are fiery, stoic, and focused. There’s not a lot of banter with these two. They’re all business.

Then you have Trevino, Hagen, and Snead. Can you even fit these personalities in the same room? If you want your team loose and feeling confident, I can’t imagine a better trio telling stories, jokes, and trash-talking the other team.

And then there’s Arnie, the perfect mix of hardened competitor and every-man approachability. He’s the glue that holds it all together. His personal Ryder Cup record of 22-8-2 is sterling. Only Billy Casper (20-10-7) won more points for the U.S. Team – and he played in five more matches.

In total, these six men have a combined 83-30-14 record. In other words, 70% of the time this team wins or halves. That kind of play will win a boatload of Ryder Cups.

The top half of the team might have been easy to pick, but the other six players offer some surprises.

The Surprising Picks

Gene Littler 14-5-8

Gardner Dickinson 9-1-0

Jackie Burke Jr. 7-1-0

Tony Lema 8-1-2

J.C. Snead 9-2-0

Larry Nelson 9-3-1

This isn’t quite the Murderers Row the top six players present, but these six men all have one thing in common with the aforementioned legends: They were all Ryder Cup mashers. Their combined records of 56-13-11 is a better winning percentage than their other six teammates.

Littler, Burke, Lema, and Nelson were all Major winners. They had serious game. Lema’s short career is the most heart-braking. He won 12 times in a four-year stretch in the early 1960s, including the British Open in 1964. Two years later, in his prime, he would die in a tragic plane accident. At the Ryder Cups in which he played, Lema was a rock-solid 8-2-1.

Larry Nelson is the quietest three-time Major winner in the history of golf. His great mistake was hitting his prime during a period when Tom Watson was inarguably the greatest player on the planet. There was no ink left in the sportswriter’s pens to cover Nelson, apparently.

But J.C. Snead and Gardner Dickinson? Well, they were a combined 18-3 in Ryder Cup play. Not too shabby. Nary a Major between them, these two turned into fairway-splitting, pin-hunting, putt-dropping madmen when the Ryder Cup rolled around.

With these 12 making the cut for the all-time Ryder Cup Team, who got overlooked?

The Contenders.

Billy Casper (20-10-7)

Hale Irwin (13-5-2)

Dow Finsterwald (9-3-1)

Julius Boros (9-3-4)

Jimmy Demaret (6-0-0)

Lanny Wadkins (20-11-3)

Gene Sarazen (7-2-3)

There are some great golfers – and a ton of Ryder Cup wins – in this bunch. But they just came up short on my list. Billy Casper, as mentioned, is the all-time leader in points won for the U.S. team. Other than Dow Finsterwald, they all won three Majors each.

The truth is, these six could have easily replaced the bottom six on my roster. I gave the nod to the others based purely on Ryder Cup performance, not career wins on Tour. Still, it’s interesting that the best Ryder Cup players aren’t always the best players of their generation.

Which brings me to …

“What About” Players

Tiger Woods (13-17-3)

Phil Mickelson (18-20-7)

Fred Couples (7-9-4)

Ben Crenshaw (3-8-1)

Bubba Watson (3-8-0)

Ray Floyd (12-16-3)

Jim Furyk (10-20-4)

Rickie Fowler (2-4-5)

Davis Love (9-12-5)

Johnny Miller (2-2-2)

Curtis Strange (6-12-2)

David Duval (1-3-2)

You can see what all of the players listed above have in common – not a single winning record among them. But who wouldn’t take this 12-man team? Still, when the Ryder Cup is up for grabs, these guys don’t always bring their A-game.

There was yet another group that didn’t make any of these lists because their Ryder Cup records were either muddling around .500 or they just didn’t have the depth of experience I was looking for.

Dustin Johnson (6-5-0)

Ben Hogan (3-0-0)

Byron Nelson (3-1-0)

Jordan Speith (4-3-2)

Brooks Koepka (3-1-0)

These are five of the best to ever tee it up. If Speith can find his Driver, he could definitely win another Major. Koepka and Johnson are the poster boys for modern power golf. Both will be in the Hall of Fame one day.

Then you have the two boys from Ft. Worth.

Hogan and Nelson are welcome on my team any time. Unfortunately, the War years robbed them of a larger body of work. They both were on two Ryder Cup teams, and both performed wonderfully, but it just isn’t enough to push them onto my A-team.

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Let’s hope the world returns to some semblance of normalcy by September. It’s important we all do our part to contain and stamp out this deadly virus. Until then, be safe, be kind, and think of greener pastures (and fairways) ahead.