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Drama on a Desert Stage

The difference between a good book and a great book is that you’re crestfallen when you get to the last page of a great book. In that vein, the greatest tragedy of Thursday’s play at the WGC Match Play was that darkness halted play on a scintillating day that saw far more drama than what you’ll get on the first full day of a “normal” golf tournament. 

Thursday’s magic went well beyond the novelty of match play, though that factor emphatically contributed to the spectacle. When one of the world’s greatest players has a so-so day on Thursday in a stroke-play event, he can make it up on Friday. But in this event, a stumble at the wrong moment could lead to an early trunk slam, and many of the greatest players on Earth suffered that fate today. 

Think of this event as a version of March Madness. You’ve got 64 entrants in four separate brackets, and it’s single elimination. Except that in this event, the #16 seed has a meaningful chance of knocking off a #1, something that’s never happened in the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. 

Today, that exact fate befell two of the event’s top seeds. And these victims were hardly nameless faces; the two best players in the world, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, saw their weeks end early with stunning losses to Shane Lowry and Charles Howell III, respectively. Howell had never beaten Woods in a match before today, ever. Woods lost despite a bogey-free round in which he hit 14 of 17 greens in regulation. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of Lowry. (Hint: He’s from the Republic of Ireland, and is not related to Paul Lawrie.) 

The other #1 seeds didn’t exactly waltz into the second round. Louis Oosthuizen beat Richie Ramsay (it’s okay if you need to look him up, too) 2 and 1, and Luke Donald finished with a birdie to come from behind to beat alternate entrant Marcel Siem 1-up, the golf equivalent of the #1 seed’s winning its first-round game with a buzzer-beating tip-in. 

The snow-delayed first round still isn’t over; there are two matches that were still on the course when it became too dark to continue. Those matches will conclude early Friday, after which the Round of 32 will begin. In the meantime, here are a few more bracket-busters from the concluded matches: 

Two #2 seeds fell at the earliest possible point. Lee Westwood and Adam Scott (who was probably over-seeded) lost to Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Tim Clark, respectively. Cabrera-Bello’s win was particularly impressive as he came back from 3-down at the turn, finally catching Westwood with a par on the 18th hole to force extra play. 

Two #3 seeds also dropped out early: Charl Schwartzel lost to Russell Henley, and Jason Dufner dropped his match to Richard Sterne, with both matches going the full 18 holes. The same fate befell half of the #4 seeds, as Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson both lost; Johnson got bludgeoned by #13 seed Alexander Noren, 6 and 4. That means that fully half of the players seeded #1-4 lost on the first day of play. Show me a March Madness like that. Needless to say, a great many brackets got destroyed today. 

One player who has to be liking his prospects right now is defending champion Hunter Mahan. He’s in what was once Woods’ bracket. If he gets by #14 seed Sterne tomorrow, he’ll face the winner of the Martin Kaymer/Cabrera-Bello match; Mahan would likely be favored against either man. The highest seed left in the top half of that bracket is Webb Simpson, and Mahan is a better match-play competitor than Simpson is. The Bracket of Death right now has got to be the lower half of the Hogan Division, which features Justin Rose, Nicolas Colsaerts, Sergio Garcia, and Matt Kuchar, any of whom is capable of winning the entire event. It says here that Kuchar makes it out of that gauntlet to face Oosthuizen in the quarterfinals.

Finally, one other former winner of this event deserves mention. Ian Poulter won Thursday and faces Bo Van Pelt on Friday. If he wins that match, he’ll face a double-digit seed (either #15 Clark or #10 Thorbjorn Oleson), with the winner of that match getting a date in the quarters against a player who may well prove to be #1 seed Donald. Keep this in mind as this thrilling event unfolds: No one ever got rich betting against Ian Poulter in a match-play format.

Going Tapioca at the Accenture Match Play

Eventually the snow will melt and they’ll have to play golf. Let’s make it more fun with some mythical picks against the number.

For entertainment use, only.

Pettersson over Fowler
100 jelly beans to win 115

Woods over Howell
240 jelly beans to win 100
(yes, it’s generally a horrendous idea to risk a lot to win a little, but this still feels like an overlay)

Siem over Donald
100 jelly beans to win 210

To be continued in Rounds 2 and onward, depending on how many jelly beans I have left.

From 2012 to 2013 on the PGA Tour

Best fantasy golfer of 2012 – The presumptive choice is Rory McIlroy. He duplicated Luke Donald’s amazing 2011 feat of winning the money titles in both the US and European Tours. McIlroy won a major in dominating fashion for the second year in a row, something that Donald has yet to do by any margin. And he led the PGA Tour in scoring average with a figure of 68.873, just a hair ahead of Tiger Woods. And yet, it’s possible to make a case for Woods, who recorded three wins to McIlroy’s four, if only because Woods played more often. After all, fantasy value in most formats comes from how often you card a score better than the field; not how many big events you win, and not how many European events you win (unless you play in a Euro league, of course). Woods played in 19 PGA events, missing just two cuts. McIlroy entered 16 events, missing three cuts. Tiger thus contributed to your fantasy team’s fortunes on the weekend 17 times, to Rory’s 13. (The wart on this stat is that Woods’s weekend scoring average was a stroke higher than in the first two rounds.) Also by that measure, Jason Dufner deserves serious consideration; while his scoring average was half a stroke higher than McIlroy’s or Woods’s, he made 21 straight cuts and carded 83 rounds in 2012, giving him many more opportunities to help your team than McIlroy (60) or Woods (69). McIlroy still gets the vote here, but it’s not the runaway that a surface view would indicate.
Shot of the year – It’s telling when a Tour pro hits the shot of his life, and not only is it not the Shot of the Year, it isn’t even the Shot of the Day. On Sunday at The Masters, Louis Oosthuizen, playing the par-5 second hole, played his second shot from 260 yards with a 4-iron. Channeling Gene Sarazen, the South African with the enviable swing played it perfectly; the ball landed in the front fringe, then rolled lazily across the green and into the cup for an albatross, the rarest gem in golf. But that wasn’t good enough. By the end of the round, he was tied with Bubba Watson for the championship. Bubba unwisely hit his drive on the second sudden-death playoff hole well right, into a forest that could well have hidden trolls and elves. His second shot was miraculous: a hard hook with a gap wedge from 154 yards that seemed to signal for a right turn while in mid-flight. The ball bounded up onto the green and into position for Watson to make a two-putt par to take the championship.
Collapse of the year – So many contenders here. Jim Furyk gagged his way through the late season, including his late fumble at the Bridgestone and an awful Ryder Cup performance. Adam Scott’s name was already half-engraved on the claret jug before he posted a bogey-bogey-bogey-bogey finish on Sunday to give Ernie Els the Open Championship. Kyle Stanley had a seven-stroke lead on Sunday at the Farmers, and still led by three as he stood safely in the 18th fairway. His “safe” wedge shot landed in the middle of the green, but then zinged all the way back into a water hazard. He ended up with a triple-bogey that put him in a playoff that – naturally – he lost by three-putting. Stanley at least came back to win the next week, unlike Furyk and Scott, but the magnitude of his fold gives him the edge in this ignoble category.
Best single moment of the 2012 season – The story goes that once someone asked Peggy Lee who the greatest jazz singer was; she answered, “You mean other than Ella?” In that sense, it isn’t fair to include the Ryder Cup with the other contenders in this category; most of the best golf moments of the year came in a single weekend at Medinah. So we’ll choose from among the mere-mortal events, and from that group, the second-best moment was Brandt Snedeker’s chip-in birdie on the 71st hole of the Tour Championship, basically assuring him of an $11 million payday. The top of the list is Tiger’s preposterous flop shot, hitting from dense rough toward a water hazard behind the 16th green on Sunday at The Memorial, for the enormous explosion it inspired from the gallery – not to mention the courage that it took to hit that shot from that place. His victory two holes later tied him with host Jack Nicklaus with 73 career wins.
Step-up players of 2013 – Plenty of players have the game to turn it on in the upcoming year, but the money here is on Oosthuizen, whose game blossomed throughout 2012. He led the European Tour in stroke average and scrambling and finished second in greens-in-regulation. A few other candidates: Charl Schwartzel finished 2012 on a strong note after losing time early due to an injury, and Nicolas Colsaerts indicated that he’d play a full season on the PGA Tour for the first time. If Colsaerts can be purloined in salary-based leagues for his 2012 earnings of $677K, then there is no excuse for not taking him. (Ditto Martin Kaymer.) Keep an eye on Nick Watney, whose results just haven’t kept up with his game over the past year and a half, and Harris English, who looks overwhelmingly likely to produce better results than 2012; just don’t expect a Rory-like year from him.
Drop-off players of 2013 – Steve Stricker has announced that he’ll play a significantly reduced schedule in the coming year. He plans to enter no more than 10 events, down from his 19-event calendar last season. He still has a masterful wedge game, and he made 18 cuts in 2012. But he’ll be 46 in February, and he’s decided to ease into semi-retirement. If you follow the Euros, remember that the ageless Miguel Angel Jimenez is on the shelf until late spring due to a fractured tibia, sustained in a late-December skiing accident. Jonathan Byrd is recovering from wrist surgery in October; he expects to be back in March, but you should be skeptical of the recovery from something as delicate as a wrist. Finally, Jim Furyk is showing signs that the fat lady is warming up. He can still put the ball in the short grass (#4 in fairways hit); he just can’t put it out there very far (#170 in driving distance). His monumental collapse at the Bridgestone, where he double-bogeyed the 72nd hole to finish second by a stroke, is just one prominent example of his recent woes. He still scored well last year, but he shows signs of eroding skills.
Money in the bank – Of the players you can buy for their 2012 earnings, take a hard look at Ian Poulter (if he indeed plays a full season on this side of the pond) and Kaymer (ditto), who should easily out-earn last year’s purses ($1.7M and $566K, respectively). You should even pick up Dustin Johnson at $3.4 million; I foresee multiple wins for him this season. Also, get players on the rise, but who didn’t have monster years in 2012 like Rory’s. The names on this list include Adam Scott (under $3M), Oosthuizen ($3.5M), and Jason Day ($1.1M). Keegan Bradley is a close call here at $3.9M, but given his youth, I’d pick him up and have fun watching him when the chips are down. (Of course, if salary is no object, and you can just pick any six golfers you like, then none of these considerations will matter much; you just load your lineup with Rory and Tiger and Dustin and Keegan, etc. Unfortunately, so will everyone else in your league.)
Too expensive – This category comes with a caveat, inspired by the classic fantasy-baseball advice of John Benson: You must get your fair share of talent with your budget. If you have a spending limit and buy a bunch of low-priced players who are overwhelmingly likely to out-earn last year, that’s great; but if you only spend half your money doing so, you’re going to lose. Benson was right; you need to wrap up some of the higher-priced talent, as outlined in the immediately preceding note. That being said, I think McIlroy will have a tough time out-pacing his phenomenal 2012 earnings (over $8M). Same for Woods at $6.1M, Snedeker at $5M, and Dufner at almost $4.9M; even Carl Pettersson at $3.5M.
Low-priced sleepers and late-round thefts – You can get Frederik Jacobson, Gary Woodland, and K. J. Choi for under $1M in salary-based leagues. Seung-Yul Noh made a plausible case for Rookie of the Year, making an amazing 24 cuts in 28 starts, and may go undrafted. Keep English in mind, as noted above.
I decided to take a look back at last year’s predictions, to see how I did the last time I posted this essay:
Bounce-back player of 2012: I picked Woods, and he came through after a dismal 2011. I give myself only an A-, though, because that one was too easy to forecast.
Out-of-nowhere player: I stuck my neck out with Patrick Cantlay, who played so steadily in the 2011 U.S. Open as an amateur. He entered four events as an amateur in early 2012, then six more after turning pro in June, making the cut each time. But he never cashed a big paycheck or made a major splash. After finishing well down the field at Q-School, he’ll start 2013 in the Tour and hope for an early promotion to the big show. I should cheat and give myself an incomplete here, especially since I warned you that he was a long-term project; I still like his prospects once he arrives on Tour.
Out-of-somewhere player: Designed to be a little more conservative than Cantlay, I went with John Senden, who then posted a middle-of-the-road season. His top finish was a fourth at the John Deere. He continued to shine in GIR, but fell back to earth in strokes gained-putting, where he had shown such promise in 2011. My GPA is slipping here . . .
Blue-chippers: I listed Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan, and Jason Day. Kuchar won The Players and Mahan won the WGC Match Play, so I feel a bit vindicated there; Day had a pedestrian year that was largely engendered by wildness off the tee (#183 in driving accuracy) that led to poor approaches (#167 in GIR).
Most likely to plummet: Furyk got the nod, and despite some good numbers and a healthy bank balance, his late-season collapses foreshadow a dim future.

Finally, I advised sticking a fork in John Daly. He played in 15 events on this side of the pond and 12 more in Europe. His PGA Tour winnings amounted to less than half a million dollars. Even for the desperate, there are far better paces to stake your fantasy golf fortunes.

The Medinah Massacre

Saturday night in Chicago, the US Ryder Cup side went to sleep with understandable confidence. The team had charged to a 10-6 lead after two days of competition, and needed only 4½ points out of Sunday’s 12 to reclaim the Cup from the European side. There was a bit of unease due to the Euros’ two late-match wins in fourballs on Saturday evening, punctuated by yet another victory bellow by that troublesome Poulter chap. But for the Americans, the question was not whether they would win, but by how many points; perhaps there was some enjoyable guessing as to which American would clinch the winning point.
Sunday night produced the unthinkable prospect of the Cup’s being hoisted by a bunch of guys chanting, “Olé, Olé!” Harking back to the Americans’ stunning comeback at Brookline in 1999, European captain José Maria Olazabal front-loaded his Sunday lineup with players who might, just might, bring the visitors back into the matches. And just as it did in Brookline, the strategy worked; Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy, and Justin Rose each won narrow matches. When the Euros’ oldest player, Paul Lawrie, decisively dispatched Brandt Snedeker, that gave the guys from across the pond an 11-10 lead that no one but the European side foresaw.
Still, the Americans’ prospects looked bright. But when Sergio Garcia won the last two holes to take a 1-up win over Jim Furyk, and Lee Westwood finished off an inconsistent Matt Kuchar, the Euros were in a commanding position. Martin Kaymer completed the comeback miracle by catching and passing Steve Stricker late on a day when both players were off their games; both players shot 73 (counting conceded putts as holed) in a match marked by indescribable pressure.
Here are some idle musings in the immediate wake of the Medinah Massacre:
  • It’s hard to envision a meaningful future Ryder Cup role for Furyk after this weekend. He did claim one point in foursomes, but that was it for his three matches. This has been a dreadful season for him, capped by a high-profile loss on the biggest stage in golf. On the last two holes, he took an extraordinary amount of time to study and re-study decisive puts before pushing both efforts off to the right. Any professional has to develop a good case of golfer’s amnesia now and then, but it’s difficult to imagine how he’ll do that after seeing him bent over in silent anguish on the 18th green Sunday, hands on his knees, pondering the loss of a crucial point.
  • The US captain for the 2014 matches has yet to be announced, but his first priority should be to see if he can persuade Poulter to obtain US citizenship. (Hey; we flipped David Feherty; it might work here, too.) Poulter was the soul of the European side all weekend, and was the only player on either side to go 4-0-0; calling him the MVP of these matches is damning him with faint praise. No one ever got rich by betting against Poulter in the Ryder Cup.
  • Davis Love’s captain’s picks went 5-8-1, but that result was skewed somewhat by Dustin Johnson’s sparkling 3-0-0 weekend. The other three were . . . well, you can do the ugly math. Olazabal’s two picks went 5-3-0, paced by Poulter’s perfect card. Nicolas Colsaerts’s only point of the weekend was a memorable dispatch of Tiger Woods and Stricker in Friday afternoon’s fourballs. Colsaerts essentially beat Woods’s and Stricker’s better ball, as his partner (Westwood) basically lay down and died on him.
  • The Europeans’ Peter Hanson was largely invisible this weekend, playing (and losing) just two matches. Olazabal sent only two of his players out for all five sessions: McIlroy and Justin Rose. In contrast, no one on the American side played in fewer than three or more than four matches. Love rested his hottest two-man team, Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, Saturday afternoon at Mickelson’s request. The strategy of ensuring that every man would be better rested for Sunday obviously didn’t pay off.
  • Woods is going to take heat after yet another disappointing Ryder Cup performance. He earned just half a point in four matches. In his foursomes and fourballs matches, he and teammate Stricker led for a total of three holes out of the 53 that they played – the first three of the ill-fated match against Colsaerts and someone dressed like Westwood. Woods’s career mark in the matches is now 12-17-3. Unlike Furyk (and even Stricker), it’s premature to predict that this will be the end of his international-play career; his play in the fourballs was sensational at times, especially on the back nine. He undoubtedly has plenty of high-level golf in him, and unless he stumbles badly, he’ll qualify for future Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup squads. It’s tempting to say that this loss, and his substandard play this weekend, will inspire him to come back with a vengeance in Scotland in 2014. But for Woods, it’s always been about winning majors. And as important as the Ryder Cup is, it isn’t a major.
  • The Europeans were not without their own disappointments. Graeme McDowell, who anchored the Sunday singles in 2010, could mange only a single point in his four matches. Francesco Molinari harvested just a half-point in three tries, and that half came in a singles match that was rendered meaningless by Kaymer’s winning putt. Still, he held his own against Woods, and that would have been a tough sell to bettors when the Sunday pairings were announced.
  • The flip side of Woods’s weekend was Dustin Johnson’s. He played a total of 50 holes in his three rounds, and trailed for exactly one hole – the first of Friday’s fourball with Kuchar. His crucial 25-foot birdie on Saturday’s 17th hole gave the Americans a point that looked like it would be halved, and he pulled away from Colsaerts late in Sunday’s singles. That point, coming in the sixth match of the day, was the Americans’ first mark of the day, and temporarily stopped the team’s bleeding on the scoreboard.
  • Let’s look at the rookies’ records: Colsaerts 1-3-0; Bradley 3-1-0; Jason Dufner 3-1-0; Webb Simpson 2-2-0; Snedeker 1-2-1. Snedeker looked a bit lost on Sunday, but the other rookies looked like they fully belonged. Bradley and Dufner never appeared to succumb to the overpowering nerves that historically have been engendered by the event.
  • As long as we’re on this topic, let’s consider each team’s core of younger players. The Europeans had four players under 30: Colsaerts (29), Kaymer (27), and McIlroy (23). Molinari is just 30; Justin Rose and Garcia are 32. The other six players on the side will each be at least 35 in 2014. For the Americans: Bradley’s 26; Simpson’s 27, and Dustin Johnson’s 28. The average age of the other nine players on this year’s team right now is 37. It’s reckless to predict now what the 2014 sides will look like, but even with the potential American addition of Rickie Fowler and perhaps another young gun, the Euros still have a younger base of excellent players.
  • Of course, we can’t get away without at least some idle long-term speculation. It says here that Darren Clarke will captain the Euros in Scotland, and Fred Couples will lead the Americans. Of those, I’m a little shakier on Clarke, as I’ve read that Colin Montgomerie is lobbying for a return to the captain’s slot for the 2014 event. Since it’s being contested in his home country, and given Monty’s outstanding Ryder Cup record as a player (20-9-7) and as captain (1-0), I can see the possibility that he might get the nod yet again. Couples served as one of Love’s alternate captains this year and has led the Presidents Cup team; he’s enormously popular with his peers.
  • A word about sportsmanship: After Kaymer ended the drama while Molinari and Woods stood in the fairway, Olazabal encouraged Molinari to play on in an effort to win the Cup outright, instead of merely retaining it on a 14-14 tie. The captain told his young charge that winning the matches was more important than just holding the trophy. Woods was clearly disheartened by the developments ahead of him; if Stricker had managed to pull out half a point, then the outcome of that final pairing would have decided the outcome of the matches, something that was unthinkable Sunday morning. In that situation, it’s reasonably foreseeable that the 18th hole would have been played out a bit differently. I’m not suggesting that Tiger mailed in his 18th hole, but his post-match comments demonstrated that his heart just wasn’t in it anymore: "We came here as a team. This is a team event. And the Cup was already been retained by Europe, so it was already over." In any event, after Woods missed his 4-foot par putt, he graciously conceded Molinari’s of roughly the same length, giving Europe the final one-point margin, an act of sportsmanship that echoed Jack Nicklaus’s similar concession to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 matches, after the US side had assured itself of a Cup-retaining 14th point. US captain Sam Snead privately fumed at Nicklaus’s generosity; Olazabal won’t have to stew over a similar fate this year.
For all the wonder that is the Ryder Cup, there is one enormous down side: the matches are only played every other year. That means we have to wait over 700 days before Ryder Cup fever breaks out again on both shores.

Ryder Cup Preview

If you’re a golf fan, the next three days are (1) Christmas, (2) your birthday, and (3) fantasy draft day. They’re the three best days of the whole year, because the quest for the Ryder Cup begins Friday morning at 7:20 a.m. CDT, with foursomes (alternate-shot play). Here are a few things to watch as this year’s matches unfold.
Rough? What rough?
There was plenty of talk in the weeks leading up to the matches about how US captain Davis Love III would try to set up the Medinah course to give a competitive advantage to his side. He denied that he would do so, or even that it was possible to do so. But the most commonly projected change, that of cutting the rough down very low, has indeed come to pass: by current accounts, the rough is more like “fairway lite,” barely longer than the flat stuff. This gives an advantage to the long bombers, who can launch away without fear of getting a punitive lie in the rough.
You might think that this factor helps the American side, which features long hitters Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson (and, to a lesser degree, Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley, and Tiger Woods). But the European side has its share of long knockers, too: Rory McIlroy and Nicolas Colsaerts surrender nothing to Johnson and Watson in length, and Lee Westwood’s average drive on the European Tour this year was just under 300 yards.
The only way to factor this into the matches is after the pairings are announced. It will be particularly important in Sunday’s singles matches, where a short hitter might find himself at a significant disadvantage to one of the big knockers, who can hit a bold driver from the tee without fear of a bad lie for his approach. That advantage could be decisive on an über-long course like Medinah’s current setup (7,658 yards).
Pairings by Lady Justice
Are you looking forward eagerly to a head-to-head match between Rory and Tiger? How about seeing Brandt Snedeker’s brilliant short game against Luke Donald’s all-around mastery? Maybe a match for the older set, pairing 43-year-old Paul Lawrie against 45-year-old Steve Stricker? Well, good luck with that. Unlike the Presidents’ Cup, in which one captain at a time can create favorable (or even dream) matchups, in Ryder Cup play, the captains each put their pairings into an envelope, and the two envelopes are opened simultaneously. They may as well draw the pairings while blindfolded.
For this reason, the announcement of the pairings for Sunday’s singles is one of the most suspenseful non-golf moments of the entire process. Each pairing will be instantly regarded as either a mismatch, or a dream match, or a complete mystery. One thing to watch for: Look for each captain to load his best players (probably as defined by who’s hot on Friday and Saturday) into the first two and the last two singles matches. In 2010, European captain Colin Montgomerie selected reigning US Open champ Graeme McDowell to play the last match; it was, as we know now, a good choice.
Note that there have been other strategies. In 1999 at Brookline, US captain Ben Crenshaw, facing an enormous uphill climb (down 10-6 going into Sunday), front-loaded his lineup with six of his best players to start Sunday’s singles. Tom Lehman, Hal Sutton, Mickelson, Love, Woods, and David Duval each won to spark a dramatic surge to a narrow US victory.
The dark-horse factor
For US audiences, some of the European players in past Ryder Cup competitions have been nearly anonymous. We see them only during majors and World Golf Championships, and even then, the television cameras rarely focus on them unless they’re in the running for a championship. But as the PGA Tour advertises about its own players, these guys can play. This year, there are probably only two or three players on the Euro side who will be unfamiliar to American audiences, owing to the European players’ greater willingness to enter several events on this side of the pond.
Of those, the one most likely to inspire a “who’s that?” response is Peter Hanson, a 33-year-old Swede. This year alone, Hanson has six top-5 finishes on the European Tour, and in his last event, earlier this month, he won the KLM Open. He finished T3 at The Masters, T7 at the PGA Championship, and (importantly) T5 at the WGC Match Play. His driving accuracy suffered a bit this year, but as noted above, that isn’t going to hurt him at Medinah. In contrast, he had his best-ever year on the greens, and with Ryder Cup pressure, a steady hand with the putter will be enormously valuable. Hanson will beat some more-familiar American players this weekend.
The home-course advantage
Here I’m not referring to Medinah’s rough, but to the galleries. Ryder Cup competitions are the one place where it’s acceptable to root against a golfer (though not to the point of abuse, something that unfortunately happens from time to time). We all know how a home-field advantage works in sports, and this year will be no different; while some European fans will have made the trip, this weekend’s galleries will be unashamedly red-white-and-blue.
Ironically, several of the European players now live in the United States, making their homes in golf-friendly places such as Florida, where they can play golf year-round. One player who’s unlikely to suffer from the rooting factor is the Euros’ Donald. While he’s unquestionably an Englishman, he attended college at Northwestern, just a few miles away from Medinah; he married a Chicago girl and lives in Evanston (although he winters in Florida). Expect US fans from Chicago to give him a little more of a pass than they will for, say, Ian Poulter.

Decision Day for Davis Love

In about an hour, US Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III will announce his four captain’s picks to round out the American side. Here are some last-minute speculations about his likely choices.
Rickie Fowler – My enthusiasm for him, expressed last week, has faded. If the team had been selected on June 1, he’d have been #1 with a bullet, having three Top-5 finishes in May, including a playoff win at the Wells Fargo. But his play has been indifferent lately; he missed the cut at the PGA Championship, managed a T24 at the Barclays, and staggered to a T74 finish at the Deutsche Bank on Labor Day. (Note that only 78 players made the cut.) At Celtic Manor in 2010, he was the youngest player on the American squad, and also the most poised, despite being a Ryder Cup rookie. At this point, I’ll say that Love will place the painful phone call to him that he’ll have to wait until 2014.
Dustin Johnson – If Fowler has played his way off the team, Johnson might have played his way on with two terrific performances at The Barclays (T3) and the Deutsche Bank (T4). He has one win in the books (the FedEx St. Jude in June) and seven Top-10s; he’s missed only one cut all year. Having missed 2½ months due to injury, he’s come back strong. He probably gets an invitation to Medinah.
Hunter Mahan – I really wanted Mahan to make the squad, if only to give him a chance to redeem himself after his closing loss to Graeme McDowell in 2010. You can easily make a case for him as a two-time winner on the Tour this year, including the WGC Match Play. But the last time he seriously contended in an event was the AT&T in late June, and weekend rounds of 73-73 forced him to settle for T8 in that event. He’s another guy who would be on the team if the selection had been made three months ago, but I think he’ll be watching the event on television with the rest of us.
Steve Stricker – It’s time to talk about experience. Stricker will bring plenty of that if he gets the nod from Love. He’s been on the Ryder Cup team twice and the Presidents Cup team four times. His one win this season was all the way back at the beginning of the year, in the reduced-field Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but he has plenty of Top-10s sprinkled in there, and like Johnson, has missed the cut only once in 2012. He’s #10 in the Official World Golf Rankings. It says here that he’s in.
Brandt Snedeker – Like Johnson, he’s done what he can to play his way onto the team with a charge on the FedEx Cup playoffs in the last two weekends. He finished a solo second at The Barclays and solo sixth at the Deutsche Bank. This year’s scorecard includes one win (albeit one way back in January, at the Farmers), a T3 at the Open Championship, and a T9 at the World Match Play. He’s #18 in the OWGR, making him the highest-ranked player without a prior reservation for the US side, other than Stricker and Johnson. His putting is lights-out (#1 on the Tour in Strokes Gained-Putting).
Bo Van Pelt – Van Pelt’s problem is that the field is too crowded for him. He’s enjoyed a solid year, and has $2.6 million in the bank after eight Top-10 finishes. But it’s tough to justify selecting him over several guys who have won once (or in some cases twice) on the Tour this year, when he has yet to cash a winner’s check. This isn’t the year.
Jim Furyk – He played well enough at the Deutsche Bank (T13) to claw his way back into contention for the fourth captain’s pick. Of the competitors’ credentials, his is the thinnest other than Van Pelt’s – no wins and some classic meltdowns this year, including the double-bogey finish on the 72nd hole to lose the Bridgestone in August. The principal counterweight to this is his substantial experience in international-team competition; it’s hard to leave off a guy who’s playing passably well and who has seven Ryder Cup caps and an equal number of Presidents Cup appearances.
Nick Watney – His win at The Barclays was enough to vault him into contention for a pick, but it’s probably too little, too late; he probably needed another Top-5 finish at the Deutsche Bank to push his way onto the American side. He closed with an even-par 71 on Labor Day to finish T20. Beyond that, a pedestrian set of credentials, by these lofty standards.
In my estimate, then, it comes down to Snedeker and Furyk for the last two slots.
By the way, if I were Love, my picks would be Fowler, Johnson, Snedeker, and Mahan. If you want experience-based leadership on the team, some guys named Woods and Mickelson can supply that, in spades. Fowler proved himself to be absolutely without fear in the 2010 matches, and I just can’t ignore Mahan’s WGC win in the match-play format. Johnson’s an easy pick (I’d love to see him up against one of the Euros’ long bombers, such as Nicolas Colsaerts). And Snedeker is hot enough to justify a ticket; anybody who can outpace the entire PGA Tour on the greens, gets a spot on my squad.
Over to you, Davis.

Olazabal Finalizes European Ryder Cup Roster

The best event in the golf calendar is just a month away. This morning, European captain Jose Maria Olazabal selected Englishman Ian Poulter and Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts to round out the Euros’ side in the 2012 Ryder Cup matches, to be held at Medinah Country Club, outside Chicago, September 28-30.
Olazabal is going to catch some grief for taking rookie Colsaerts over veteran Padraig Harrington, and some wags are going to insist that that choice reflects a carry-over grudge from 2003, when Olazabal and Harrington disagreed over Olazabal’s desire to fix a ball mark. But I think the captain made the right call. The team already has loads of Ryder Cup experience – every player other than Colsaerts has played in Ryder Cup matches before – and Colsaerts is a budding star whose length will help enormously at Medinah. His selection was hardly a stretch; he’s ninth on the European Points list, but wasn’t among the ten automatic qualifiers because of the two-tier selection system that the European side employs.
Poulter, of course, was an easy choice. He’s devastating in match play, having won two world championships in that format since 2010, and he has a dazzling Ryder Cup record of 8-3. Olazabal referred to the near inevitability of Poulter’s selection at Monday’s press conference: “I think every one of you pretty much guessed that Ian was going to be there. . . . The two times I had the opportunity to share a few moments with him at Valhalla and Celtic Manor, you didn’t need to motivate him. Just by looking at his eyes you could see he would give everything he had during that week.”
Colsaerts and Poulter fill out a formidable team that includes six players in the top 14 of the Official World Golf Rankings. More important, it includes a number of players whose careers are on the rise, such as world #1 Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Francesco Molinari, and Martin Kaymer, in addition to Colsaerts. Sergio Garcia played his way onto the team with a win at the Wyndham and a T3 at The Barclays in the past two weeks; and Paul Lawrie, who will be the oldest man inside the ropes, has resurrected his career, thirteen years after his win at Carnoustie in the Open Championship.
Attention now shifts to the western side of the Atlantic, where American captain Davis Love III will have another week to make his selections for the final four slots on the US side. The Americans are hardly overmatched; they feature six of the top 12 in the OWGR, and that figure could rise if Love selects Steve Stricker, currently #10. The guys currently on the bubble include Hunter Mahan (#9 in US Ryder Cup points), who’s probably desperate to atone for his closing loss to Graeme McDowell in the 2010 matches; Stricker (#10); Jim Furyk (#11); and Rickie Fowler (#12). But Brandt Snedeker (#13) has fought his way into the picture with four sub-par rounds at The Barclays for a solo second-place finish. Nick Watney staked a claim with an impressive win at The Barclays. And Love will not overlook Dustin Johnson’s closing 68 at The Barclays to finish T3; he’s missed only one cut in 2012.
Handicapping the likely captain’s picks while there’s still an event to go is a dicey proposition, but in my view, Fowler is in unless he injures himself; Snedeker will get the nod if he plays reasonably well at the Deutsche Bank this weekend.
If you could make the team based on past performance, Stricker would be a shoo-in; he largely carried the American side to a near-miraculous comeback in 2010. His fortunes had slipped a tad with some poor weekend performances in the middle of the season, but he’s turned that around with three Top-10s in his past five events (including the PGA Championship). He, too, has missed only one cut all season; it says here that he gets one of the picks.
That leaves one slot, assuming Snedeker acquits himself reasonably well in Boston. There are, in my mind, three primary contenders: Mahan, Watney, and Furyk.
Mahan, despite being ninth in points, is actually in a precarious position; he’s missed the cut in his last two events, and his last Top-10 finish was a T8 at the AT&T on July 1. Still, he does have two wins this year, and one of those was – importantly – the WGC World Match Play Championship in February. Because the Ryder Cup is nothing but match play, that probably gives him a bit of an edge in the selection process.
Watney’s win last weekend will give his name much more prominence than it would have if his victory had occurred in, say, May. But he’s way, way down the Ryder Cup points list – #30, in contrast to Mahan’s #9 and Furyk’s #11. He missed the cut at the PGA with an 82 on a brutal Friday, and has only four Top-10 finishes this season. He probably needs another win, or a near-win, at the Deutsche Bank to grab the prized invitation.
The other likely contender for that slot – barring a Deutsche Bank win by someone like Johnson or Bo Van Pelt – is Furyk. He’s played better this year than he did last season, although that isn’t saying much. But he’s demonstrated virtually no ability to close the deal. Exhibit A to that indictment is his final-hole collapse at the Bridgestone in early August, to lose an event that he had in hand. And three missed cuts in his last six events, including one at The Barclays, do not bode well.
If either Mahan or Furyk posts a strong showing at the Deutsche Bank, that player should have the edge for the last captain’s pick. The other one will likely receive a phone call that Love wishes for all the world he didn’t have to make.