EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in O's series of updates on the Ryder Cup held at Gleneagles in Scotland on Sept. 26-28.
What's That Smell?
The most wonderful time of the year for golf fans is creeping up and it comes only every other year.
History. Tradition. Emotion. Heartbreak. Tom Watson. Nope, not the Masters. Well, yeah, actually most of that applies to the trip down Magnolia Lane as well, minus the every-other-year thing.
In this case it’s the 2014 Ryder Cup, which is less than 200 days away. It’s time to start paying attention.
With all apologies to friends across the pond, our coverage leading up to the Ryder Cup will be heavily slanted towards the Yanks. That’s not to say we won’t bury you a bone somewhere deep into the article to keep you up to date, but our friendly zone of conceded article space will mirror that of Ian Poulter’s charity on the greens of Gleneagles.
The PGA of America wants to see the Ryder Cup trophy come back to the United States. Badly. Rather than take a card from the deck of 40somethings in line for a captaincy -- maybe a David Toms -- the organization made a bold move and pulled out an entirely different deck. The result was emphatically slamming a Tom Watson card on the table. The Europeans will trot out Paul McGinley. See, there’s a bone.
Watson has responded by aligning himself with assistant captains from the old guard, leaving fans to wonder how in touch with the current crop of players the likes of Raymond Floyd and Andy North are these days. The captain also sparked controversy when he reduced his number of captain’s picks from four to three, allowing the top nine in the Ryder Cup points list to qualify automatically.
Why not just leave it alone and discipline yourself to take the ninth guy rather than change the system for the guy coming behind you? Jack Nicklaus would regularly take the 11th guy in the Presidents Cup standings, but he didn’t reduce his number of picks to one.
Points for Team USA are based off money earned during the 2013-14 PGA TOUR season as well as the four majors from 2013. U.S. players pick up one point per $1,000 earned for each of the four 2013 majors, as well as all 2013-14 non-major events not played opposite a World Golf Championships or a major.
Players get two points per $1,000 earned in the four 2014 majors, but just half a point per $1,000 in any event played opposite the WGCs or majors. Think Puerto Rico Open.
The funny thing is, the way the U.S. roster is taking shape he may have been dumb like a fox. The top 12 in the current USA point standings are Jimmy Walker (3,861.680), Dustin Johnson (3,759.812), Bubba Watson (3,018.984), Patrick Reed (3,008.552), Jason Dufner (2,574.398), Phil Mickelson (2,537.422), Harris English (2,519.807), Zach Johnson (2,365.318), Webb Simpson (2201.097), Ryan Moore (2,161.201), Chris Kirk (2,025.870) and Kevin Stadler (1,674.152). With the top nine in as automatics, Moore, Kirk and Stadler would require a nod from Tom Watson if this were the final standings.
Walker and DJ are on the team. Bubba Watson and Reed will be, too, barring an epic collapse or an injury. That leaves five automatic spots up for grabs with three captain’s picks.
Let’s take a look at the four that are essentially locked in.
• Jimmy Walker – While it’s possible for a guy with two wins in a Ryder Cup season to just miss out on the team, three wins is the charm. Don’t expect his next five months to be like the first half of his season, but at the same time he won't forget how to play golf. He also won’t end the season as the top guy on this list, but he’ll stay inside the top five by default.
• Dustin Johnson – Perhaps being left off the Presidents Cup team served as some type of inspiration because he’s come out of the box swinging in 2013-14. Do not be surprised if he wins the Masters and he is as good a bet as any to end up leading the USA point standings.
• Bubba Watson – Another Masters' favorite, he’s seemingly in contention every week. He should also grab plenty of points at the Travelers Championship.
• Patrick Reed – He believes he’s top five in the world and, while that may be debatable, he is absolutely top five in this standing. He’s the reason why the assistant captains may work out well. Reed hasn’t lost a Ryder Cup. He’s “new blood.” Who better to mold the fresh faces than the guys who regularly won the Cup a generation ago? What would a guy like Toms instill in Patrick Reed? The recent winner at Doral will be fun to watch in this event. If his history at Augusta State is any indicator, he may tell -- not ask -- Captain Watson to stick him out last on Sunday. And Watson may laugh.
Here are the eight that should ultimately round out the Team USA, as well as their current standing.
• Jason Dufner – Currently fifth in standings due in large part to his win at the PGA Championship last year. He’s performed well in team events when paired with Zach Johnson. Should one of the two make the team on merit, the other will probably nab a captain’s pick.
• Zach Johnson – Sits eighth in the standings and has his regular cash boon of Colonial Country Club still forthcoming. He will also pick up plenty of points at the John Deere Classic. See Dufner for the rest.
• Webb Simpson – Considering Bubba’s caddie looped for him to start the year while Paul Tesori was home with the birth of a new child, and the two of them have played together in past team events with success, Simpson is on the team. He’ll probably make it on points (currently ninth) but if not he will be an easy captain’s pick.
• Harris English – Another potential Ryder Cup rookie, he has worked his way into seventh on the standings and has been a consistent top-10 machine in 2013-14. Has the game and demeanor to excel in this format and would pair easily with almost anyone. It’s somewhat imperative that he make the team on points because the list of players needing a captain’s pick is both deep and impressive.
• Jordan Spieth – Got his feet wet in a rather unimpressive Presidents Cup debut, but the kid is consistently knocking on the door. At 13th in the current standings, he is not a long shot by any standard. Should he pick up a win between now and then, it would solidify his spot.
Where Are They Now?
Wait a minute. There are only three spots left and we haven’t even mentioned Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan, Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. Bill Haas? Billy Horschel? Steve Stricker? Keegan Bradley? Brandt Snedeker?
Let’s weed a few of them out.
• Stricker is out because he isn’t playing frequently or well enough, and his recent record with Woods isn’t good. The theory that Stricker is on the team to guide the youngsters and play with Tiger doesn’t carry weight anymore. Sorry Stricks. The hazards of semi-retirement.
• Horschel is a distant 28th in the standings. The team already has youth, and if it came down to him or Bradley it would be a no-brainer in Bradley’s favor. Horschel needs to play his way inside the top 15 to even have a prayer.
• Haas played really well in the Presidents Cup last year despite an average record. It feels like he’s a guy that would have to make the team on points, and if he does he will be a solid member. But at 24th, I don’t see him doing that without a massive second half to the year.
• Snedeker isn’t playing well dating back to his Segway accident in late 2013. Who knows what happens if his putter gets hot, but for now he really hasn’t put himself on the radar.
If there was ever a captain with the kahunas and credibility to leave Tiger Woods off a team, it would be Tom Watson. In the past, Watson has been more critical than many of the legends in regards to the Woods temper tantrums and other shenanigans. If he’s healthy, Tiger probably has a spot. But it’s not a guarantee.
Fill 'er Up
The last three spots go to:
• Tiger Woods – The back bears watching, as does his form, but he has plenty of time to turn this ship around. If he picks up a win or two on courses like Bay Hill, Augusta National, Muirfield Village and Firestone Country Club, he’ll punch his ticket. If he continues to struggle and grab his back every three holes, remaining ranked near his current spot at 35th, stay tuned.
• Phil Mickelson – Because he’s fifth in the points and excels in majors, he may make the team on merit. If he doesn’t, he’s still a guy you want in the locker room. Ironically enough, if Keegan Bradley were to make the team on merit, then it would likely lock up a spot for Lefty in the process.
• Keegan Bradley – Gets the last spot because he often plays his best golf in and around the WGC-Bridgestone and the PGA Championship. If he peaks in early August again this season, he’ll be fine. If he doesn’t, he leaves the door wide open for Mahan or Kuchar.
There are two other names to keep in the back of your mind. Call it the Jordan Spieth category, or perhaps the ultimate darkhorse category. Both of these young American studs sit inside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking and neither has any status on the PGA TOUR. Not even Special Temporary Membership.
Meet Brooks Koepka (70th in the OWGR) and Peter Uihlein (73rd).
Short of one of them winning a major or a World Golf Championship, it’s highly doubtful that either will come close to cracking the top nine for an automatic bid. So, how would either earn a red, white and blue uniform?
Tom Watson tweeted the following on March 13: “While current hot play is a factor, what I’m looking for most is guts or heart.”
Both Koepka and Uihlein are members and winners on the European Tour. If one was to go on a roll and bag multiple wins in convincing fashion in Europe over the summer, perhaps with the Scottish Open or Irish Open being one of them, Watson may find one or both to have the heart or guts needed to earn a captain’s pick. Plus, either upstart would have proven himself successful in Europe where the Ryder Cup will be contested. Just sayin'.
To put a bow on it, it’s almost inconceivable that BOTH Kuchar and Mahan are off the team, but that’s how it plays out under this scenario. Mahan has a history of fading late in Ryder Cup years, assumingly putting way too much pressure on himself to play well and make the team, only to see the opposite occur. Kuchar may require more than just his usual string of top-10 finishes to push his way through. He’ll need a win or two.
The strategy above is also relying on the importance of previously successful pairings remaining together like Z. Johnson/Dufner, B. Watson/Simpson and Mickelson/Bradley. If ZJ and Dufner both fail to make the team on points, it potentially opens up two spots, not one. If Bradley isn’t hot late, but Kuchar is, there’s nothing stopping Mickelson from taking Reed under his wing and Kuchar from teaming up with Walker.
The inclusion of the fall events is having a tangible impact on the race to Gleneagles. It could be the difference in Harris English making the team or missing. It's why DJ and Walker are locks. The guys who wind up on the wrong side of a Tom Watson phone call later this year could rue the decision to skip those events, if indeed he did.
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 Victor Dubuisson, Jamie Donaldson, Thomas Bjorn and Ian Poulter. The five on the World Points List not otherwise exempt from the European Points List are Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy, Stephen Gallacher and Joost Luiten. Under this scenario, it would seem likely that Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell would be the favorites for captain picks. Sorry Westy.