EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in O's series of updates on the Ryder Cup held at Gleneagles in Scotland on Sept. 26-28.
The Final Stretch
With the third major championship of the season in the books, the Ryder Cup picture is coming into focus at a rapid rate. Perhaps no player has benefitted more from the current points system than Rickie Fowler. He was as a co-runner-up in the last two majors following a tie for fifth at the Masters in what have been the only three double-point events. Following a deep dive into all things Team USA, we will double back and take a snapshot at Team Europe.
Dating back to the Masters, U.S. captain Tom Watson shared that the PGA of America felt 4,600 points would be necessary to secure one of the nine automatic spots for the U.S. squad. If that holds up, there are seven Americans currently in the safety zone.
Bubba Watson (6,828.138) and Jimmy Walker (5,510.205) have long been locks. They were joined by Dustin Johnson (5,133.807) and Matt Kuchar (4,764.065) when last we checked in. Bubba remains first in the standings, with Watson second, DJ fourth and Kuchar seventh.
At the risk of sounding like a cable news network on an election night, we are ready to project three more members to the podium to accept their spot on Team USA.
• Rickie Fowler (5,403.253) – Catapults all the way to third with his T2 at Hoylake on the heels of his T2 at Pinehurst. He was a bubble boy at seventh upon our previous review following the U.S. Open. The king of the flat bill will attract a fun group of views to Gleneagles in a few months. Though he’s only won once on the PGA TOUR and hasn’t hoisted a trophy at all this season, he will be a solid inclusion to captain Watson’s squad.
• Jim Furyk (5,259.594) – Joins Fowler as a player on the team who hasn’t bagged a win this season, but has a pair of runner-up finishes joining a solo fourth at The Open Championship. As mentioned in prior previews, it’s very debatable as to if Furyk’s experience in this event is good or bad given his personal record (9-17-4) and the struggles of Team USA in recent years. No matter, he resides in fourth place and can mail in his clothing sizes.
• Jordan Spieth (4,781.827) – Barely ahead of Kuchar in sixth, Spieth should avoid the stress of sweating out a captain’s pick that would be sure to come. Young blood like Fowler and Spieth could be the key to a U.S. revival in Scotland. Joins Fowler and Furyk as non-winners in 2013-14, which is in interesting trend.
The gap between Matt Kuchar in seventh and Jason Dufner in eighth place is pretty enormous -- essentially a victory -- with Kuchar leading Dufner by 1,247.72 points. Knowing that nine places are reserved for the automatics, places 8-18 are all within striking distance of an automatic spot with a win down the stretch. Those players are Dufner (3,516.345), Zach Johnson (3,450.894), Patrick Reed (3,301.393), Phil Mickelson (3,252.838), Brendon Todd (3,250.483), Chris Kirk (3,226.483), Ryan Moore (3,118.872), Webb Simpson (3,086.070), Keegan Bradley (3,016.698), Harris English (2,966.569) and Kevin Na (2,878.818).
One has to like Dufner and ZJ’s chances of being on the team at Gleneagles, either by hanging on for an automatic bid or nabbing a captain’s pick. It remains to be seen if guys like Reed, Todd, Kirk, Moore, English or Na would pack the punch to earn a nod from Tom Watson should they fail to earn their way on the team. Gut reaction is that they wouldn’t. Mickelson, Simpson and Bradley would also warrant consideration.
If Then, But What If?
Shall we consider a few scenarios?
• Should everything remain as it is, with Dufner and ZJ picking up the final automatics, that would be very good news for Bradley, Mickelson and potentially Tiger Woods. Team USA would be so strong before Watson made his first selection that it would be easier to stomach the risk of Mickelson and Woods. Bradley is almost a no-brainer.
• Let's assume only one of the two between Dufner and ZJ earn a spot on points, with the other automatic berth going to someone other than the names mentioned in the scenario above. For giggles, let’s say Ryan Moore. Because ZJ and Dufner pair so well together, it’s likely the missing player steals one of the three captain’s picks. Bradley still makes sense, but it gets complicated from there.
• The Armageddon scenario for captain Watson would be if someone off the radar wins the PGA Championship and takes the ninth spot, while a guy like Brendon Todd finishes strong enough to land eighth place. Then what? Unless he finishes strong at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship, it's bad news for Tiger Woods. It would also get dicey for Mickelson. Up until this point in the season, ZJ would seem the better pick than Dufner. Watson could go with the Mickelson/Bradley pairing and let Zach Johnson find another partner, or vice versa with Dufner. See? Messy.
Crackers, the Animal!
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room -- El Tigre.
Captain Watson seems to be clarifying, or backpedaling, from his stance that a healthy Tiger Woods will be on the team. Now, Tiger needs to be healthy and in solid current form, which is the absolute right thing for everyone. Let’s face it, someone has to make up for the points Jim Furyk is going to lose.
The tough call is determining what will be considered good form. Woods’ 69 in the first round of The Open Championship was promising, but in the end he never played a hole that really mattered. It would stand to reason that captain Watson would want Woods to play some holes on the weekend, either in the WGC-Bridgestone, which has no cut, or the PGA Championship, while also contending for a shot to win a golf tournament. It can’t be a good thing for his first shot that actually matters in 2014 to come on the first tee at the Ryder Cup. How about at least a top 10, and not one from the back door, in the WGC-Bridgestone or the PGA?
While not as big of a question mark as Woods, Mickelson is without a top 10 on the PGA TOUR in 2014 with a much larger sampling of tournaments.
So You're Saying There's a Chance
Are there any dark horses remaining?
To be frank, it would take something pretty special for anyone currently outside of the top 20 to edge their way onto Team USA, but it’s not impossible.
• Charley Hoffman (1,991.023) -- In 26th place and jumps off the page as a guy who’s played well all season. Adding to that, he’s in the field at the RBC Canadian Open this week and is widely considered to be among the favorites. Should he pick off a win at Royal Montreal, his odds increase greatly.
• Steve Stricker (1,434.607) -- Currently 39th and the man with his own plan. If he wins the PGA Championship, one would have to think he’s on the team.
There are two things that we know for sure aren’t the case. The first is that I don’t get to pick Team USA. The second is that the points end after the PGA Championship, and not The Open Championship. Ignoring those two fairly important facts, Captain O would use the three picks on Keegan Bradley, Phil Mickelson and Ryan Moore. There it is. On the record.
As for the Team Europe, standings for the Ryder Cup are pulled from two different lists -- the World Points List and the European Points Lists. Yes, it’s about as confusing as the metric system. The top four players on the European Points List are automatically in, and then the top five players on the World Points List not already exempt via the European Points List are in. Following that, Paul McGinley rounds out the team with three picks.
The top four on the European Points List are Rory McIlroy, Victor Dubuisson, Jamie Donaldson and Henrik Stenson. The five on the World Points List not otherwise exempt from the European Points List are Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Thomas Bjorn and Luke Donald. Under this scenario, it would seem likely that Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Francesco Molinari would be among the favorites the three captain’s picks. Perhaps the final major will decide that, but Poulter and G-Mac would likely fill two of the three seats.