AKRON, Ohio (AP) The World Golf Championships usually include a couple of players that make people wonder how on earth they qualified for such an elite event that distributes $8 million in prize money.
The Bridgestone Invitational is no exception.
James Kingston of South Africa was playing alone up the ninth fairway when a couple of Americans stopped to watch. Only when the caddie set his bag down were they able to figure out who he was. Kingston won twice this year in South African and was runner-up at the Scottish Open, which is why he is No. 71 in the world.
The bigger surprise is what some of the Americans are doing here.
J.J. Henry has not had a top-five finish since winning in Hartford two years ago. He is having a tough year at No. 185 in the FedEx Cup standings, and his world ranking has plummeted to No. 272, the worst of anyone in the 80-man field.
Not much better off is Chris DiMarco, who has made only eight cuts in 19 starts on the PGA Tour, has yet to qualify for a major this year and is now No. 207 in the world. Then there's Vaughn Taylor, who also has fallen on hard times after coping with allergies and vertigo last year that caused him to sink to No. 178.
All of them have the Ryder Cup to thank for their tee time this week. Six players from the 2006 team that got clobbered at The K Club in Ireland are no longer in the top 50 in the world, but they are eligible for this World Golf Championship.
"I'm on a free pass this week," Taylor said. "But I still need some good results."
Firestone always has been a freebie.
When it was converted into a WGC in 1999, the field was limited to players from the most recent Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup team. Remember, it was 1999 when Americans criticized the PGA of America for making millions of dollars off them at the Ryder Cup, and some saw this tournament as payment for playing in the cup.
It has since expanded to include the top 50 in the world and winners of selected tournaments around the globe. But there are still a few surprises brought on by the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup exemptions.
The most comical example was in 2004.
Tiger Woods was having lunch in the locker room at Firestone when he was asked about the '02 Ryder Cup at The Belfry, where unheralded Phillip Price beat Phil Mickelson to carry Europe to victory. Woods was asked a hypothetical question. If Mickelson had won his match, was it assuming too much that Davis Love III would have won the last hole to defeat Pierre Fulke?
Woods paused, as if contemplating the situation. Then his eyes lit up and he snapped his fingers.
"That's what Fulke is doing here this week," he said.
Fulke clinched a spot on Europe's side in January 2001. Then the matches were postponed a year by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Europe had not named its 2004 team. So even though Fulke had fallen off the map, he was eligible for a world championship.
That's the kind of reaction DiMarco has received this week. Ditto for Lucas Glover, who was a captain's pick for the Presidents Cup last year but has only two top 10s this year and is No. 138 in the world ranking.
"It's a bonus for me," Glover said. "If it wasn't for Mr. Nicklaus picking me, I wouldn't be here. I just haven't played well. I'm just going to be very relaxed this week and try to make some birdies."
It's not just the Americans.
Darren Clarke is playing in the United States for the first time since the PGA Championship last year. He won the BMW Asian Open in April, his first victory since his wife Heather died of cancer in 2006, and he has shown steady improvement. Even so, he is No. 105 in the world and a long way off from making his sixth Ryder Cup team.
One week could change everything. Clarke won at Firestone in 2003 by four shots and considers this one of his favorite U.S. courses. A victory this week could move him from No. 33 on the European points list to as high as No. 7.
"It's always good to come back here because I've always enjoyed it here," Clarke said. "And we are lucky to be here. But that was always set out that way as part of the qualifying process. It's a big two weeks for me if I want a chance to get myself on the team."
It's also a big chance for some of the American players, who have two weeks left to qualify for the Ryder Cup team. The purse is $8 million this week, and points are double next week at the PGA Championship.
That's a big advantage for someone like Chad Campbell, who is 21st in the Ryder Cup standings and playing at Firestone while four players ahead of him in the standings Jeff Quinney, Bart Bryant, Ben Curtis and Jerry Kelly did not qualify.
Campbell is coming off a seventh-place finish at the John Deere Classic and a tie for third in Milwaukee. If he finishes second this week, he could climb over a dozen players in the Ryder Cup standings.
So maybe this is something players should remember in September when they're dressing up for a black-tie gala, posing for photos and getting ripped for losing again to Europe.
It really does pay to play in the Ryder Cup.