The players who matter most (and least) at this Ryder Cup

AP Photo/Matt Dunham

PARIS -- One of the most difficult things to get people to understand every two years in preparation for the Ryder Cup is that match play and stroke play are different animals. They are almost different sports. Stroke play is about consistency and focus, blocking out your surroundings. Match play is about emotion, energy, a flair for the dramatic. If you're great at stroke play, you can be great at match play, but it's not a given. In stroke play, 90 percent of the time you're competing against the course.

In match play, you're staring down an opponent to see who blinks first. This is one reason why, despite having less-accomplished players, Europe has won seven of the past 10 Ryder Cups. World rankings, mostly determined by how good one is at stroke play, have little meaning here.

The tide may have changed, however, two years ago at Hazeltine National Golf Club. The United States seems to have figured out how to play as a team instead of playing as 12 individuals. But it's not a coincidence that the Americans haven't won on European soil since 1993 at the Belfry. Unlikely things happen whenever this event is held in Europe. Journeymen like Jamie Donaldson and Costantino Rocca turn into magicians. Sergio Garcia remembers how to putt. Tiger Woods looks mortal, and Ian Poulter looks like the greatest putter who ever lived. If you're expecting the Americans to win in a rout, you may want to hedge that bet. The Americans were heavily favored in 1997, when the Ryder Cup went to Valderrama -- the first time the cup was contested outside of Great Britain and Ireland -- and Europe's upset victory was the first of five consecutive cups.

Who is most likely to help their team secure the cup? We decided to rank all 24 players, not in terms of skill, but in terms of how valuable they are to their team. The player who sits at the top of our rankings isn't the best player in the world, but in this event, for one week every two years, he just might be.

1. Justin Rose, Europe
I can't help but feel like Rose is both underrated and overrated, in a way. He feels like both a stone-cold killer and an underachiever, if that makes sense. Why does he only have one major, and why is it only courtesy of another Phil Mickelson fade on Sunday at a U.S. Open? How does he not have Ernie Els' career in terms of majors? He's so good! He has one of the most intimidating glares in golf. And yet ... it seems weird he's been one of the best players in the world for like 15 years and Justin Thomas had the same number of PGA Tour wins until Rose won the BMW Championship. Rose simply should have won more, and yet he's resurrected his career, like, three times already. He wasn't a good putter a year ago; now he's back to being one of the best putters on Tour. It would not surprise me one bit to see him go 4-0-1 and lead Europe to a victory.

2. Patrick Reed, United States
On one hand, this ranking assumes he's going to continue his incredible run in Ryder Cups and not regress toward the mean. On the other hand, all available evidence points to the case that Reed might have been born for this event. He might even be the American Sevé Ballesteros, the man who didn't care if he rubbed people the wrong way, and lived for this event every two years. After what he did against Rory McIlroy in singles two years ago, when the pair battled in one of the epic singles matches in Ryder Cup history, the No. 1 spot in these rankings is Reed's until someone takes it away from him. He's earned it. He doesn't drive it the farthest, he isn't the best iron player in the world, and he isn't the best putter. In this event, that doesn't seem to matter. He's unafraid of the moment. It will be interesting to see who United States captain Jim Furyk pairs with Reed. Obviously, Reed and Spieth have had great success together (losing just once in seven matches together) but with Spieth struggling, it seems unlikely he'll play five times, meaning Reed will need a new partner for at least one match.

3. Brooks Koepka, United States
The bigger the event, the more engaged Koepka seems to be. With two major victories this year, he's established himself as maybe the baddest hombre in the world of golf -- someone who doesn't care that much about week-to-week Tour events but who might rack up majors for a decade the way he drives and putts. Not only did Koepka go 3-1 in his last Ryder Cup appearance, he's unlikely to be rattled by teeing it up on foreign soil, having played well in Europe early in his career when he was looking to earn his PGA Tour card. (He won four European Challenge events, won the Turkish Airlines Open in 2014, and finished second at the Dunhill Links Championship in 2015.) There is a good chance we're going to look back someday and be baffled by the fact that the United States once passed over Koepka and Thomas in international team events in favor of Ryan Moore and Bill Haas, but no matter now. Both should be a mainstay on these teams for years to come.

4. Rory McIlroy, Europe
Let's take a second and remember how good, and entertaining, McIlroy was at Hazeltine in 2016. It's truly one of the most entertaining performances we've ever seen in a losing effort. He made a walk-off eagle and bowed to the fans; he sang along with mock glee when the crowd tried to serenade him with Sweet Caroline (a reference to his ex-fiancée, tennis player Caroline Wozniacki); he went blow-for-blow with Patrick Reed in one of the great Sunday singles matches of all time; he encouraged the Americans to kick their celebration up a notch after the United States clinched the Cup, because he felt it was too muted for what they'd accomplished. He embodied everything that makes the Ryder Cup fun: intensity, humor, excellent golf, sportsmanship and grace in defeat. Now, will he be that same player in Paris? He's hitting the ball as well as he has in years, including short irons, but his putter still tends to go ice cold on Sundays. It feels like less a matter of mechanics and more a matter of confidence. Remember prior to the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, when McIlroy didn't shy away from a comparison to LeBron and the declaration that it was a fact, not an opinion, they were both the best players in their sports? Can we have that guy back, please?

5. Justin Thomas, United States
All due respect to Ryan Moore, but the fact that Thomas is making his Ryder Cup debut ought to be seen as a flaw in the American system. I'm a big proponent of the last few picks on the roster almost always going to young players, particularly if they're potentially great ones. Brooks Koepka might be the best player in the world when conditions are the most extreme, but on a weekly basis, Thomas deserves the crown as the best. The only concern I have with him in Paris is he'll be too jacked up. It would have been great for the U.S. if he'd gotten his feet wet at Hazeltine. Alas, he did not, so he'll likely be dealing with rookie nerves for at least the first day.

6. Tiger Woods, United States
Still a little surreal to see him back on the squad as a player, isn't it? Strange but true fact: Woods has played on only one winning Ryder Cup team, 1999. I've always thought the whole narrative that Woods dislikes the Ryder Cup was a little unfair. All you have to do is go back and look at how high he jumped in the air when Justin Leonard made the putt at Brookline to cap off the U.S. comeback. (His feet are above Tom Lehman's waist in the picture.) Woods hasn't always played his best in this event, but not all Ryder Cup records are created equally. Take, for example, what happened in 2012. He shot roughly a 65 in fourball, yet he and Steve Stricker lost their match 1-down because Nicolas Colesaerts went bonkers and made eight birdies and an eagle (Stricker and Lee Westwood were essentially spectators). Hard to pin that one on The Big Cat. Even with his recent victory, it seems likely that Woods will only play three matches this time around, which is the perfect amount for a guy 42 years old. For all the angst over his overall record (13-17-3) he remains one of the best U.S. players in singles (4-1-2) and Furyk would be wise to use him early in the lineup on Sunday to build momentum instead of saving him for when it might not matter. If list factored in what each player meant to his team as both a player and as a strategist, Big Cat would certainly be No. 1. You can bet Furyk will be cracking up his spreadsheet in Tiger's hotel room each night as they go over pairings.

7. Dustin Johnson, United States
There is no question that Gleneagles was a mess for the United States, but it's easy to forget one of the reasons the Americans were so outmatched. That team was missing Johnson (who went 3-0 at Medinah), who was in the midst of a "mental break" that everyone assumes was a six-month suspension. Johnson wasn't lights-out at Hazeltine, losing twice to the McIlroy-Thomas Pieters buzzsaw, but he did earn two points (only three U.S. players earned more), which is a testament to how deep the American squad is this time around. It feels like DJ ought to have five majors by now, but similar to Rose, he basically is who he is at this point. A great player who probably could have won more, but for whatever reason, has not.

8. Tommy Fleetwood, Europe
Of all the players I'm most excited to see make their Ryder Cup debut, Fleetwood is probably No. 1. He's such a pure ball striker, you could sit and watch him hit range balls for an hour and be mesmerized. He's not afraid of going really low, as evidenced by his back-to-back 62s in the BMW Championship. Fleetwood also won the French Open on this golf course in 2017, so don't be surprised if he feels right at home.

9. Ian Poulter, Europe
Poulter is clearly one of the people we'll always associate with the Ryder Cup. It's going to be an absolute delight (to borrow an English phrase) when he's the European captain someday. But here is an interesting question with regards to Poulter, the player: Will he be the player he was in 2012, when he went 4-0 and likely sparked the European comeback on Saturday afternoon by birdieing five straight holes to steal a point? Or will we see the player he was in 2014, when he went 0-1-2 at Gleneagles and was one of Europe's least effective players? There is no doubt that Poulter has the perfect mentality for the Ryder Cup. But at age 42, does he still have the game? You'd be foolish to write him off. That's exactly the kind of sentiment that would give him fuel. But it would be surprising to see greatness too.

10. Francesco Molinari, Europe
You can make a decent case that Molinari is Europe's best player going into this Ryder Cup. He's not a great putter, but from tee-to-green he's been the second-best player on the PGA Tour this year. He's certainly been Europe's best player throughout the summer, when he won twice (Quicken Loans and Open Championship) and finished second at the John Deere Classic during a three-week stretch. He also has an excellent record at Le Golf National, having finished second in the French Open three times. Remember when he and Tiger Woods had that super-awkward singles match at Medinah, where the Cup had wrapped up and neither man wanted to be there, but neither was sure how to proceed? (Woods eventually picked up Molinari's coin on the 18th green, rather than make him hole a putt.) Glad that wasn't the last match of Tiger's Ryder Cup career.

11. Jon Rahm, Europe
This Ryder Cup, Rahm's first, will be an excellent case study in patience. His temper runs hot in situations where he is only playing for himself. How is he going to react when he's playing for all of Europe and he sprays a drive or shanks a bunker shot? Maybe it will relieve some of that pressure and he'll lean on his teammates to keep his cool, but he could also turn into a volcano if he doesn't play well. One small request in regards to Rahm: Enough with the Sevé Ballesteros comparisons just because they're both from Spain. Rahm's game is nothing like Seve's game. Rahm drives it a mile and has the lower body of a rhinoceros. Seve was an artist who never saw a fairway he couldn't miss with a driver. Find a new slant, please.

12. Rickie Fowler, United States
This will be Fowler's fourth Ryder Cup, a pretty impressive feat considering he's only 29 years old. What can we say about Fowler in the three previous Ryder Cups? He's really good at halving matches, something he's done five times. It's hard to tell if that has any larger meaning. In 2010, at Celtic Manor, he made a clutch birdie putt to earn a half point in foursomes and another clutch birdie to earn a half point in singles. But in 2014, Jimmy Walker dragged a listless Fowler to a halve against Martin Kaymer and Thomas Bjorn. Fowler then left an eagle putt short on 18 (which would have won the match) against Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy, resulting in another half point. It would be great for the U.S. if Fowler played well enough to put some of those matches away early.

13. Phil Mickelson, United States
There has been a surprising amount of criticism about Mickelson making the team as a captain's pick this year, which is somewhat odd considering he's having his best season, statistically, in several years. He's fourth on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting and fourth in birdie average. No one on Tour has been better this year at approach shots from 150-175 yards, which is a pretty important distance. Mickelson took a lot of heat for being so critical of U.S. captain Tom Watson at Gleneagles, but in reality, that moment is the reason the United States now has a consistent plan going into every Ryder Cup. It's not a strategy that gets slapped together on a napkin five days before the event. Yes, it was cruel to play the role of Brutus to Watson's Julius Caesar the way he did, right after the United States got crushed on European soil yet again. But what sometimes gets lost in remembering that moment is that Mickelson told the truth. Players weren't involved in any decisions under Watson. Now, Mickelson and Woods, behind the scenes, have almost as much input as Furyk. That's a good thing. For all the angst over his overall Ryder Cup record, he's going 7-3-0 in the last three.

14. Bryson DeChambeau, United States
Does DeChambeau ever annoy you? You're not alone, but from the American perspective, think about how much he'll annoy the Europeans. I'm so happy he made the Ryder Cup team just from a content perspective, because he could be a huge success or he could easily have an epic, club-throwing meltdown if he's off his game. Even if the Americans once again fail to win in Europe, the fact that DeChambeau, Reed, Jordan Spieth, Thomas, Koepka, Fowler and Tony Finau are all on this team, and expected to be mainstays for years to come, despite the fact that none of them have turned 30 yet, is pretty amazing. You know how many guys under 30 the 2006 American Ryder Cup team had? Zero. The 2004 U.S. team had one guy under 30 -- Tiger Woods.

15. Tony Finau, United States
Here is all you need to know about Finau: He makes a ton of birdies. Sometimes he'll throw in a triple bogey, but that almost doesn't matter in match play. In fourballs, he could be an integral weapon for the United States, particularly if he is paired with someone who can make a lot of clutch pars. You could argue this spot should have gone to Xander Schauffele (or Keegan Bradley, if you're feeling nostalgic for his and Mickelson's pairing at Medinah), but Finau was the right choice. With a Ryder Cup spot on the line, he fired 12 consecutive rounds in the 60s during the FedExCup playoffs. That's a guy you want on your squad. He'd have locked up this spot sooner if he'd played a hair better in the final round of the U.S. Open, where he began the day tied for the lead and shot 72 to finish fifth. But he still made five birdies during that round, more proof that if you give him the right partner, he can be a huge asset.

16. Paul Casey, Europe
Is Casey a good player? Certainly. Is he so good that he was worth Bjorn and European Tour CEO Keith Pelley essentially pleading with him to rearrange his life so that he'd be eligible again to play for Team Europe? I'm not so sure. His record in three Ryder Cup appearances (3-4-2) is pretty unimpressive. Maybe Casey will play great and validate Bjorn's decision, but if he doesn't, it will be hard to overlook the fact that Bjorn chose him and Sergio over Thomas Pieters and Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Europe's two best players at Hazeltine.

17. Webb Simpson, United States
Sure, it's hard to forget about Simpson's last Ryder Cup appearance in 2014. First, he texted his way onto the team by appealing to Tom Watson's bravado, then popped up a 3-wood on his opening tee shot. He and Bubba Watson didn't make a birdie between them in 14 holes of fourball, and then he sat until Sunday, where he halved a meaningless match again Ian Poulter. I'm going to go out on a limb, though, and predict he'll be better this time around. He seems like a more complete, confident player than he was in 2014. Unlike some guys who had to ditch the long putter, he's deadly with his new stroke. Simpson has been really good this season in every category except driving, where he's below average. He might be a smart play in foursomes, where he'll only have to hit five or six drivers.

18. Jordan Spieth, United States
Based on resume and experience, he deserves to be ranked higher. He has three majors. This is his third Ryder Cup. He was the No. 1 player in the world not that long ago. But ask yourself this question: Do you have any faith he can make a 4-footer in a do-or-die moment to extend a match? It's possible, perhaps even probable, that he'll find some magic playing with Reed (the Batman to his Robin at the Ryder Cup). But is he going to be one of the American heavyweights? Maybe the fact that he missed the Tour Championship is a good thing for Spieth, since he can have some time to mentally recharge and work with his coach, Cameron McCormick. He's still hitting the ball well enough (26th in strokes gained approach) but he's been one of the worst putters on the PGA Tour this year, ranking 136th in strokes gained putting. Woof.

19. Henrik Stenson, Europe
If you've ever stood next to Stenson and listened to him hit a mid-iron into a green, you understand what golfing nirvana sounds like. It's music. Fleetwood and Woods might be the only players who can make a similar sound when hitting it flush. Sadly, as Stenson has aged, so has his putter. Statistically, he's actually rolled it worse than Spieth this season (ranking a cringeworthy 187th in strokes gained putting), mostly because he's barely made anything outside 10 feet. Europe can pair him with Justin Rose, or sit him in foursomes, and still get something out of him during the week. But come Sunday, when he's all alone and has to make birdies, he's going to be vulnerable.

20. Bubba Watson, United States
What can you say about Gerry Watson? If the United States ever decided to hold the Ryder Cup at Riviera Country Club or Augusta National, you could pencil him in for at least four points. Outside those friendly confines? It's a mystery. The admittedly eccentric Watson is certain to hear some jeers from the fans, who will remember his last trip to France in 2011, when he played poorly and blamed it on being unnerved by the lack of gallery ropes. Watson admitted he was a "selfish" Ryder Cup teammate in the past, saying he only wanted to be paired with his friends, which limited the options of the U.S. captains. But he says he's learned from those mistakes and has a new attitude, which are the main reasons he was left off the team in 2016 despite being ranked seventh in the world. Would be a nice redemption story if he played well. He's 1-6 during Ryder Cups held in Europe.

21. Alexander Noren, Europe
No player better represents the flawed methodology of the Official World Golf Rankings than Noren. It's not that Noren is bad -- he's actually pretty good! -- it's that he inexplicably rose to ninth in the world in 2016 despite barely teeing it up on the PGA Tour that year. It didn't help that he seemed to play poorly in big events, majors and the World Golf Championships. Some of that changed this year, with Noren teeing it up 17 times on the PGA Tour and nearly winning the Farmers Insurance Open. (He might have won had J.B. Holmes not iced him for eight minutes while he mulled his somewhat meaningless approach during regulation.) Where Noren could be a sneaky weapon for the Euros is with his putter. He ranked 6th on tour this year in strokes gained putting. He's also proven he can play well on this golf course, having won the French Open earlier this year. (It wasn't a particularly strong field, but Justin Thomas finished T-8 in the same event, so he did beat a few heavyweights.)

22. Tyrrell Hatton, Europe
Thorbjorn Olesen has won more on the European Tour, but Hatton has (arguably) been the better player. He finished 6th at the U.S. Open this year and 10th at the PGA Championship, an impressive feat considering how good the leaderboards were at each event. Statistically, he's rather average compared to his peers, particularly off the tee. He ranks 70th on tour in strokes gained off the tee.

23. Sergio Garcia, Europe
Sure, this ranking is potentially controversial. Garcia is one of the best Ryder Cup lions of all time. But he has been -- to put it bluntly -- utterly lost this season. And he hasn't been particularly great in recent Ryder Cups, going just 6-7-4. Who can forget Anthony Kim longing to face him all week in 2008, then thrashing Sergio in singles -- 5 and 4? If Europe wins, it will be because Sergio found some of his pre-2008 magic. With all he's accomplished previously, I have no problem with him getting a free pass this time around that recent results don't necessarily support. Every truly great Ryder Cup player deserves at least one more dance. It's going to be fun to see him as a captain someday in this event, but you have to wonder if this might be the last time we'll see him as a player.

24. Thorbjorn Olesen, Europe
Give Olesen credit. Euro captain Thomas Bjorn made it clear this summer it would be really awkward if he had to use one of his captain's picks on Olesen, a fellow Dane and close friend. He wanted Olesen to make the team on points, and Olesen delivered, grabbing the eighth automatic qualifier spot. How good will Olesen be under the bright lights of the Ryder Cup? Europe has made a habit of getting points from the bottom of its roster, particularly on European soil, but Olesen will enter this Ryder Cup as one of the least accomplished players on the two rosters. Sure, he has five European Tour wins, but he hasn't played in The Masters since 2014, meaning he hasn't been ranked in the Top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings that entire time. (He's currently 44th.)