After the first round of the Deutsche Bank Championship, Ryan Palmer led, with Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Bill Haas in close pursuit. Hmmm. Anybody spot a trend? They were in the group of golfers hoping to be among the three captain's picks on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, to be announced on Tuesday by Tom Watson.
Rarely do golfers have something to play for other than the tournament they are in at a given time. This, however, was shaping up as a tournament within a tournament. But by the time the traditional Labor Day Monday finish rolled around, the names atop the leaderboard belonged to a different group of Americans: Chris Kirk, Billy Horschel and Russell Henley, along with Australian Geoff Ogilvy.
Kirk, who was 14th in the Ryder Cup standings when the top nine were automatically named to the team, scored the biggest win of his burgeoning career, shooting 64-66 the final two rounds to defeat that trio by two strokes. Further, he did it playing alongside Europe's (and the world's) top golfer, Rory McIlroy.
But will Kirk get the congratulatory call from Watson on Tuesday morning, or any call at all? Probably not. He likely wasn't under serious consideration, having not played well since very early in the season, when he scored a win in the McGladrey Classic in November and was runner-up in January's Sony Open. His only top 10 since that that time, until Monday, was T4 at the Memorial in June.
Kirk, another in a remarkable collection of Georgia golfers (University of Georgia, 2007), took over first place in the FedEx Cup standings, ensuring him a spot in the 30-man Tour Championship, which will be played following the third playoff event, next week's BMW Championship in Denver. He overtook last week's winner, Hunter Mahan, who likely earned himself a captain's pick with his Barclays victory.
That would seemingly leave Bradley, Simpson, Haas and Brandt Snedeker vying for the last two spots. But gosh, Kirk, looks as good or better than each of them now.
In the more immediate race, the 100 entrants in Boston were hoping to end up in the top 70, which is the limit for the BMW. Toward the end of Monday's broadcast, NBC announced the final few golfers to advance in the FedEx Cup playoffs, with Ben Crane holding the final berth, agonizingly edging out Jerry Kelly, who eagled the final hole, only for naught.
Fifteen minutes later, NBC corrected itself, explaining that a late birdie by Jason Day took points away from Robert Streb, dropping him from the top 70, overtaken by Kelly. Streb finished tied for ninth, a valiant effort, but lost points when Day passed him into a tie for seventh.
Heading to 18, Horschel had a chance to tie Kirk, who had only parred the par-5, or even win with an eagle. After a perfect drive, he stood 212 yards out. Just a 6-iron into the green for, at worst, a two-putt birdie and a playoff. But he proceeded to chunk his approach as badly as can be remembered in a big-moment situation, rinsing his shot into the hazard. Yes, he bogeyed the hole to lose a wad of cash, but moved from 82nd to 20th in the standings to lock up a berth at East Lake. What was bigger blunder on Monday, NBC's or Horschel's? (Don't' answer, that's a trick question: It depends on whether you ask Mrs. Horschel or Mrs. Streb.)
The Ricky Schroeder look-alike, who stared down McIlroy in a four-man playoff to win the Honda Classic in early March, couldn't convert his overnight lead, closing with a 70 while Kirk (66) and Ogilvy (65) went way low. He's 14th in the standings, also bound for the Tour Championship.
When Tim Finchem thought up this playoff system, it's likely he had in mind the very burst that Ogilvy has been on the past month. As August opened, the veteran Aussie was about to lose his card, sitting 151st in the standings. But he won for the first time in four years at Stableford-scoring Barracuda Championship to climb to 84th. Despite missing the cut last week at The Barclays, this runner-up finish moved him to 24th and, almost assuredly, a spot at East Lake.
Haas wound up tied for ninth and will qualify for the final two playoff tournaments. As for the Ryder Cup, he was a distant 28th in the standings after the PGA Championship, but has strung together three top 15s since then. He's playing better now than the front-runners for Watson's team, but likely hasn't done quite enough to overtake them.
Simpson, another golfer supposedly on Watson's short list, was 15th in the Ryder Cup standings. He started fast in Boston, but faded, albeit to a respectable tie for ninth. Has he done enough to get tabbed? (Another trick question. No, he probably hasn't, though who has, besides Mahan and Kirk? Watson has to fill out the team no matter.) Simpson's season is overwhelmingly front-loaded and, despite two top 5s in the two months, they came in lesser fields.
Bradley has been considered the likely top captain's pick, not that Watson would share the order of his three picks, because of his fiery persona and his Ryder Cup success, primarily tag-teaming with Phil Mickelson. After an opening 65 this week, Bradley meandered along to a tie for 16th. He did have a tie for fourth in the WBC-Bridgestone a month ago and before that a T19 at the Open Championship. His year has not been stellar by his standards, but even if Watson chose Mahan and, shockingly, Kirk, Bradley would likely still get a spot.
Palmer was an outsider, having finished 18th in the Ryder Cup standings, But he opened with a 63 for the Deutsche Bank lead, initiating thoughts that a victory could land him a captain's pick. But like Bradley, he wound up tied for 16th.
Snedeker has had a woeful season, but the normally terrific putter almost assuredly would have been a pick had his game shown any signs of life in the playoffs. But Snedeker missed both cuts and, at 86th in the FedEx standings, is done. It's hard to envision him being selected.
Kaymer already was on Europe's team, on the basis of a superb spring with wins in The Players Championship and U.S. Open. But his game fell off thereafter, leaving him as a potentially weak link on Paul McGinley's squad. The European captain surely liked what he saw this week from the German, who closed with a 67 to tie for seventh. Kaymer, too, will play all the way to East Lake.
The ultimate match-play gamer, Poulter opened with a 67 and closed with a 66, but didn't do enough in between to finish better than 23rd in Boston. At 78th in the FEC standings, he's done. But his Ryder Cup history means he's a virtual lock for one of Europe's three captain's picks.
Donald was 80th in the FedEx coming in, and needed a good week to reach Denver. He also was looking to impress McGinley. But the Englishman wound up 57th this week, and fell to 89th in the standings, ending his playoff run. Still, the veteran Ryder Cupper is considered a likely pick, with perhaps Scot Stephen Gallacher holding the edge for McGinley's final slot, especially having just finished third last week at the Italian Open, just outside of the top-2 finish he needed to automatically qualify. With the biennial matches in Scotland, the thinking is that will give the edge to Gallacher over, say, Lee Westwood, who bowed out of the playoffs after one event.