Let's use the most famous team competition in golf, the Ryder Cup, as an example. In the Ryder Cup, Team USA plays Team Europe. There are 12 golfers on each team. Team USA (as of the 2012 match) consists of eight golfers who automatically qualify, plus four captain's picks; Team Europe (as of the 2012 match) consists of 10 golfers who automatically qualify, plus two captain's picks (each team sets it own qualifying criteria).
To simplify, we'll just discuss Team USA's Ryder Cup team. The team's governing body (in this case, the PGA of America) sets the qualifying criteria - for Team USA in the Ryder Cup, it's a points list based on golfers' tournament winnings. A points list is maintained, and at the selection deadline the Top 8 golfers on that points list have earned automatic places on the team.
That leaves four spots open on Team USA. So the team captain examines all the golfers who failed to automatically qualify, looks at their credentials, how they are playing at the moment, their history in the Ryder Cup, and decides which four he wants to add to the team. Those are the captain's picks. They are called that (obviously) because they are picked by the team captain.
The rules for automatic qualifiers, how many team members qualify automatically vs. how many are captain's picks, vary from competition to competition - whether you're talking about the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup or Solheim Cup, or whether you're talking about a local competition among clubs. Captain's picks aren't always included in the mix at all - that's up to the competition and team rulesmakers. And as we saw with the Ryder Cup example, there can be differences between the teams within the same competition (Europe using two captain's picks, America using four in the 2012 Ryder Cup).
But the definition of the captain's pick is always the same: A golfer who fails to automatically qualify, but is added to a team at the discretion of the team captain.
Numbers of Captain's Picks in Top Tournaments
What are the numbers of captain's picks at the best-known golf team matches? Here are the numbers at the time this glossary entry was written (2012):
- Ryder Cup: Europe - 2; USA - 4
- Presidents Cup: Internationals - 2; USA - 2
- Solheim Cup: Europe - 4; USA - 2
- Seve Trophy: Continental Europe - 0; Great Britain & Ireland - 0
"Presidents Cup captains Fred Couples and Nick Price will announce their four captains' picks next week."