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JERSEY CITY, N.J. – There are still six meaningful rounds to play and another four - let’s call them significant rounds - for those who have visions of spending the fourth week of September amid the mud and the madness that is the Ryder Cup. But decision time is coming.
U.S skipper Steve Stricker has deftly danced around anything even close to a clear choice, plucking a page directly from the task force playbook that dictates you don’t commit to anything until you must. But the deadline to qualify for his team is now 10 days away and with it looms one of the most difficult decisions in all of sports.
Any past captain will tell you the toughest part of the gig are the picks. To be more precise, the toughest part is telling those who didn’t get picked and that normally pressure-packed process will be even more intense this time around with two extra selections for a total of six. Thank you, COVID-19.
In the next few days, Stricker and his vice captains are going to start plowing through pages of data and text messages from Tiger Woods trying to mix and match players and potential pairings. Captain’s picks are as much about the pairing as they are the player, and Stricker will have his hands full on this front.
Although technically only Collin Morikawa and Dustin Johnson have locked up spots on Team Stricker something dramatic would need to happen for Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka, Nos. 3 and 4, respectively, on the U.S. point list, to get knocked out. Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele (Nos. 5 and 6) are also safe bets to make the team.
Which leaves everyone else vying for six spots.
Jordan Spieth, who is just outside the automatic qualifiers and enjoying a summer of competitive renaissance, is as close to a lock as one can be in this situation and in many circles Patrick Cantlay (No. 11) is also a no-brainer.
But, if the above holds true, that leaves so many others vying for four spots.
Not to peel back too many layers of the process, but Stricker sent a questionnaire to some of the potential team members. It wasn’t so much a list-your-resume as it was a “Hi, my name is …”
“I care too much. I try too hard,” laughed Scottie Scheffler, who is currently 14th on the point list and something of a trendy pick. “It's a simple question. He didn't ask, what are you bad at, he said, ‘What are you trying to improve on?’ I could talk for 30 minutes with you about how I am trying to improve my game.”
It’s an interesting move for the captain, but “What are you trying to improve on?” doesn’t scratch the surface of questions Stricker needs answers to.
Among the educated decisions he’d like to make is whether Patrick Reed, who was once the face of the American fighting spirit in these biennial matches but has been tarnished in recent years by being too outspoken (2018 Ryder Cup) and too combative (2019 Presidents Cup), has a place on this team. If recent form is any consideration there’s also the issue of P-Reed having to withdraw from the last two events with a left ankle injury.
Recent form is the one constant Stricker can rely on. Forget the politics and pairings, when he walks in front of the camera on Sept. 8 to announce his picks his best defense will be performances.
Tony Finau will tell you he hasn’t had the most consistent summer, but being 12th on the points list has earned him a spot in the conversation and through two rounds at Liberty National he clearly knows what will earn him a spot in the Whistling Straits team room.
“I have experience being in this position before. I would say it's in the back of my mind, but pretty far in the back of my mind. I think the FedExCup and just every day I know is a big day,” said Finau, who was alone in second place after a second-round 64 at The Northern Trust.
In 2018, Finau was in a similar position. He was 15th on the points list and a would-be rookie for an overseas Ryder Cup. That’s not exactly a perfect storm for a captain, but he made a statement with three consecutive top-10 finishes to start the post-season and then-captain Jim Furyk took a flier and selected him with his final pick over the likes of Schauffele, Matt Kuchar and Kevin Kisner.
Finau was a rare bright spot during an otherwise miserable week for the U.S. team, going 2-2-0 for the U.S. side in a 10-point loss.
For Finau this is all so simple.
“For the most part, you try to have your game do the talking,” he said. “Everybody wants to make the team. I'm included in that. But at this point in the season, our games have to do the talking and I'm happy with the start of the playoffs.”
There’s a lesson there if Stricker is so inclined. There will be as many data points as there are opinions over the next few days for the captain, but the one thing that always defies debate is performance.