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U.S. pros focused on Ryder Cup, not FedEx

Photo: Stan Badz/PGA TOUR/WireImage.com

Justin Leonard hasn't made a Ryder Cup team since 1999.

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — The silver trophy on the first tee at Kapalua at the start of the PGA Tour season looked like one that Tiger Woods might have kissed before. It was the trophy that goes to the winner of the Mercedes-Benz Championship.

The FedEx Cup, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found.

In the second year of this "new era in golf," the hype over the FedEx Cup has become an afterthought. Players were peppered with the FedEx Cup question last year at Kapalua, and they were asked to deposit their golf ball into the trophy at the end of the first round. It seemed like half of FedEx's headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., was in Hawaii.

This year, only three top FedEx officials are at Kapalua. No one is asking players if they'll be at all four playoff events, or even what they think about a two-week break before the Tour Championship.

That doesn't mean players aren't consumed by a cup.

"This time, we're talking about the Ryder Cup," Justin Leonard said.

Don't get the idea that Leonard or any other American is on the range or the putting green thinking about what has to improve for him to make the Ryder Cup team. Leonard, whose game began turning around last year when he won the Texas Open, hasn't played in the Ryder Cup since his 45-foot putt on the 17th hole at Brookline culminated the Americans' comeback against Europe. But he knows the drill. Play well, and the Ryder Cup will take care of itself.

Still, when the calendar turned to 2008, it was hard to find an American (or European on the PGA Tour) who didn't realize this was a Ryder Cup year, or one who didn't put making the team at the top of his wish list.

The Ryder Cup will be played Sept. 19-21 at Valhalla.

"That's my main goal for this year," Brandt Snedeker said. "Valhalla is three hours where I'm from in Nashville, so it would be a great place for me to hopefully make a Ryder Cup debut. Obviously, the most important thing on my radar is to play good golf and get into that."

Strangely enough, there's one similarity between the Ryder Cup and FedEx Cup — some players still don't know how it works.

"I'm a little confused," Steve Stricker said. "I thought I had a good year last year, and I'm like 10th in the standings."

U.S. captain Paul Azinger orchestrated an overhaul of the points system when he was appointed in the fall of 2006. Azinger built the criteria around money instead of points, with a heavy emphasis on the current year of the Ryder Cup and the majors.

Scant points were offered for the end of 2006 because qualifying was already under way. In 2007, players earned one point for every dollar they made only in the majors. This year, they will get one point for every dollar earned in regular PGA Tour events, two points per dollar in the majors and a half point for every dollar in tournaments held opposite the majors and World Golf Championships.

"I do like how it's weighted more in the current year, and I'm happy to know that I've already won some points," said Masters champion Zach Johnson, who is No. 3 in the standings starting the season.

If that wasn't enough, Azinger will get four captain's picks instead of two. That means only eight spots are earned.

Stricker was No. 2 in the FedEx Cup and No. 4 on the money list last year, but his only points came from his tie for 13th in the U.S. Open, tie for eighth in the British Open and tie for 23rd in the PGA Championship.

Asked which cup meant more to him this year, Stricker didn't hesitate in saying the Ryder Cup.

"I've never played on one, and after my experience in the Presidents Cup, I had a lot of fun," he said. "But just like the FedEx Cup, if you play well, that stuff will take care of itself."

The top eight going into 2008 are Woods, Jim Furyk, Johnson, Woody Austin, Stewart Cink, Joe Durant, Hunter Mahan and Jerry Kelly. Expect that to change dramatically, even before the Masters.

Consider this: If an American wins at Kapalua, he will be no worse than No. 3 in the standings. Azinger liked the sound of that because he wants the hottest players at Valhalla.

"Anyone that has a tour card can make this team," Azinger said. "I think that's exciting and the way it should be."

Scott Verplank is at No. 11 going into the year, and that's worth noting because 11th seemed to be the story of his Ryder Cup bid the last two times. Verplank found himself just outside the top 10 while trying to win tournaments, and that meant no points.

"You start racking up top 13s and you get no points," Mark Calcavecchia said. "It's probably a better barometer of how the 10 best players of the year are — American players — based on where you are on the money list. I think that's probably a good idea. That's what Europe has always done, right?"

Boo Weekley, of course, has his homespun take on the system.

"Money don't lie," he said.

Azinger is to start his 2008 season as a player next week at the Sony Open in Honolulu. Europe's captain is Nick Faldo, who seems to be everywhere on tour with his TV duties on CBS Sports and The Golf Channel.

The FedEx Cup will come into the picture at some point this year, but probably not until the PGA Championship ends Aug. 10 and players have a better idea where they will be seeded for the playoffs.

That also happens to be the last day to qualify for the Ryder Cup.

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