Here’s one man’s quick reaction to the qualifiers for the United States Ryder Cup team.
Already clinched a spot in the locker room:
9. Zach Johnson – A lot of USA fans are quietly heaving a sigh of relief that Johnson qualified on points. He’s a great battler, a grinder who can beat an adversary in match play even when he isn’t playing his best. As Tiger Woods learned at Thousand Oaks in December, Johnson has a wonderful wedge game. If he hadn’t made it on points, he would have been well worth a captain’s pick, based on experience and guts.
8. Patrick Reed – He staked a claim to a position on the team with two early-2014 wins, and then limped along in the points standings to hang on to a top-nine position. Those wins seem like a long time ago now; a T4 at the WGC Bridgestone is the only thing separating him from a thoroughly pedestrian spring and summer. But more fundamentally, who will agree to play with him in foursomes and four-balls? After his brash comments in the winter series, he isn’t likely to make the Tour’s Top Five in peer popularity.
7. Jordan Spieth – Four years ago, Rickie Fowler proved that youth can conquer pressure. Spieth’s mental makeup similarly portends a strong Cup showing, though does have an Achilles heel – the driver. He’s 89th on Tour in driving distance, 135th in driving accuracy, and 149th in total driving. Leaving himself that far back and out of position has cost him in one of the Holy Grail categories, greens in regulation (139th on Tour). He’s made it up in scrambling and strokes gained – putting, but living that way is a risky proposition when the golf gods turn up the pressure.
6. Matt Kuchar – Kuchar might be too laid-back to get really nervous, which comes in handy in international competitions. The real question mark is his health, as he withdrew from the PGA Championship due to a bad back. If an injury is marginal, you might withdraw from the Valspar Championship, but with a major championship, you play through it if you possibly can. This WD hints at how much he was hurting. He’ll assuredly take part in at least some of the Tour’s playoff events, but expect him to get at least some rest between now and September 26. Ironically, perhaps the worst thing that could happen for his Ryder Cup performance would be for him to make it all the way to East Lake in mid-September.
5. Phil Mickelson – He’s undoubtedly glad that he made it on points, instead of having to rely on Tom Watson’s discretion. He’ll be the team’s de facto leader on the course, given his extensive Cup experience. And he’s played well in August, with a T15 at the WGC-Bridgestone and a solo second at the PGA to clinch his automatic spot.
4. Jimmy Walker – Walker leads all players on the US side in wins this season, with three. As with Reed, those wins came a loooooong time ago – the most recent was at Pebble Beach in early February. But unlike Reed, he’s maintained a solid level of high finishes throughout the year, including making the cuts in all four majors, so he’s a better prospect at Gleneagles.
3. Jim Furyk – If this were soccer, Furyk would be nicknamed “Own Goal.” His high-visibility meltdowns have contributed mightily to US losses in the last two Cups, not to mention his inability to close the deal in recent Tour events. After his demoralizing 2012 singles loss to Sergio Garcia, it said in this space that his international career was finished; but here he is, back for a chance at redemption. Pardon me if I have to avert my eyes.
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2. Rickie Fowler – The erstwhile kid will likely be the best player on the American side, despite the fact that he doesn’t really excel in any statistical categories. He just completed a historic majors run in 2014 despite not winning any of them, and he’s ninth on Tour in Sunday scoring average, so he can play under pressure. He’s on quite a hot streak, with top-10 finishes in each of his last four events, but Gleneagles is still six weeks away.
1. Bubba Watson – “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” When Bubba’s on, he’s beyond intimidating. But if he’s off, the European players will be hoping to be slotted against him. As with Fowler, it’s useless to speculate now as to how he’ll be playing in September; the playoffs will tell if he’s on a roll or not. Beware the possibility that he could succumb more readily to Ryder Cup pressure than would other players.
Over to you, Tom – US captain Tom Watson will get an extended audition period for his three captain’s picks. Again, it’s unwise to guess now as to which players he’ll select, since he’ll have three more events’ worth of information on who’s hot and who’s not, before he makes his decision. Here are a few early observations:
Jason Dufner is 10th on the points list. If he’s healthy – and he wasn’t at the PGA Championship – then he’s likely to be selected. See the discussion of Tiger Woods, below. Ryan Moore and Brendon Todd are right below Dufner in the standings at positions 11 and 12, but unless either one catches fire in the next three events, I don’t expect to see either inside the ropes at Gleneagles.
Watson will seriously consider Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, and Hunter Mahan, each of whom has played in previous matches. Of these, Bradley is, right now, the likeliest to be selected. Listen carefully for a voice in the back of the captain’s head, urging him to reinstate the wildly successful 2012 combination of Bradley and Mickelson.
Neither Brandt Snedeker nor Bill Haas has won a major, but both are seasoned veterans – and FedEx Cup champions – who made the cuts in all four majors and would match up well with some of the European side’s lineup. Snedeker has cooled off noticeably from 2012, when he was one of the hottest golfers on the planet, but he’s had a respectable season in 2013-14. Haas has struggled in the second half of the season, with just two top-10 finishes since mid-March, but he’s 35th on the points list and on the fringes of the roster picture, pending the playoffs.
If Watson has a sneaky sense, he might look carefully at Billy Horschel. Horschel, at #71, was nowhere near the automatic-qualifier cutoff, but as with Bubba, when he’s on, he’s something to fear. He had a terrific month of June, with only one finish out of the top 15 – and that was a T23 at the US Open. But he missed the cut at the Open Championship and finished well down the list at the PGA in his only two starts after July 1. He, too, needs to make noise in the next three weeks in order to get noticed.
Just as intriguing, the captain has told assistant captain Steve Stricker, “Bring your clubs over.” Stricker probably won’t be a captain’s pick; he would likely only be used as an injury replacement for someone who’s unable to compete. But his game is still solid despite his relaxed schedule the past two years.
And that brings us to the 800-pound gorilla, Tiger Woods. Woods wants to play; no secret about that. He hasn’t come close to justifying a position on the team; no question about that, either. Despite Woods’s MC at the PGA, and the fact that he won’t tee ‘em up again this season, Watson hasn’t ruled out picking him, noting that “He brings something to the team in a big way.” Woods offers experience, albeit with a poor record in Cup matches. He offers intimidation, in the event he’s healthy. He also offers an unacceptable health risk for those who are risk-averse. If a three clear options emerge in the three events before Watson announces his choices September 2, then Woods will be a spectator, or perhaps an assistant-assistant captain. But if Watson doesn’t identify a trump card, he might just take a chance with Woods, as long as Tiger says that he feels fit to play.
Next on the tee: The European side continues its automatic-qualification process through the end of August. A day or two later, Captains Watson and Paul McGinley will announce their captain’s picks. McGinley will already have an embarrassment of riches on his roster, as Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, and Victor Dubuisson will already be pulling on team sweaters before McGinley has to start making additional selections. The European side is loaded and will likely be significant favorites when the matches begin September 26.