A lot of time and discussion goes into trying to get the playing order right. A team captain wants their best players to win their matches but also wants their weakest players to have a chance as well. It is also important to build up some momentum through the tournament and not have a situation where your team has already lost before your best players complete their rounds.
But is too much made of the order of play or can it really make a big difference?
Take a simple example with three players per team. Let’s assume that with home advantage the American team are slightly better than the European team so that the six players ranked from best to worst are as follows:
1st – American 1 – Tiger Woods
2nd – European 1 – Rory McIlroy
3rd – American 2 – Bubba Watson
4th – European 2 – Luke Donald
5th – American 3 – Webb Simpson
6th – European 3 – Lee Westwood
So in our simplified game Tiger Woods is the top player and would beat any of the European players. Rory McIlroy would lose to Tiger but beat Bubba Watson or Webb Simpson and so on.
In this game the US team are clearly superior and you would expect them to win comfortably.
But imagine that the pairings come out as:
- Tiger Woods v Lee Westwood
- Bubba Watson v Rory McIlroy
- Webb Simpson v Luke Donald
Tiger wins the first match-up, McIlroy wins the second and Luke Donald wins the third. The European team have won by two points to one, despite being the weaker team.
So, the order of the matches does makes a difference. The US team lost because their best player was not used effectively and only beat the weakest Eurpoean, a match that either of the other two Americans would have won as well. In most of the possible orders the US team wins, but in this scenario the European team wins.
This is a classic situation for game theory. The team captains have to take into account what they think their opponent will do when they select the order that their team will play. Their opponent is also trying to do the same so they need to work out how their strategies will interact.
Of course, the actual situation in the Ryder Cup is a lot more complicated. There are more players, it isn’t clear who will win any particular match-up and there are other factors like momentum and confidence to take into account. But it is clear from our simple example that the order does matter and the captains need to work hard to get it right.
If either of the teams want some game theory advice in 2014 then I am available at very competitive rates!