Phil Mickelson's recent spotty putting and inconsistent wedge game mean he's a question mark headed into the Ryder Cup.
Russell Lansford/Icon Sportswire
By Gary Van Sickle
Sunday, September 21, 2014

I must be missing something. The Americans have won exactly one of the last six Ryder Cups and when they won that one in Kentucky in 2008, captain Paul Azinger reinvented and reinvigorated the entire U.S. side with some innovative changes.

The players play and the captains captain and you can argue that the latter doesn’t have much to do with the outcome. I agree with that to a point. Azinger inspired his team with his pod-pairings and his passion and clearly ran rings around his opposing captain, the never-a-people-person Nick Faldo, and I’d say Azinger was just as responsible for that lone U.S. win as any of the players.

So how come the PGA of America and the American captains since then haven’t used Zinger’s formula as a blueprint since he’s batting 1.000 and the other most recent five captains are batting .000?

As I said, I don’t get it. The PGA of America congratulated themselves for thinking outside the bun in selecting Watson, a Hall of Famer who is beloved in Scotland, site of the matches. Watson breaks the PGA’s captain mold because he’s older -- 65 -- and he’s already captained a Ryder Cup win in 1993. There aren’t a lot of other Americans lolling about who can say that. Except for Azinger. Bringing him back six years after the last American win, now that would’ve been thinking outside the bun.

A few of Zinger’s changes stand. Qualifying for the team is based on money won the year of the Ryder Cup, with majors counting double, and money won the year before only in the four major championships. It was imperative to get players who were playing well and peaking for the Ryder Cup, Zinger figured, and the previous system was based on points over a two-year period and too often led to players making the team who hadn’t had a hot stretch in months. He also expanded the number of wild-card selections from two to four, to have more leeway in picking the hot hands, and he pushed the wild-card selection date back by three weeks—to after the second FedEx Cup event instead of after the PGA Championship.

The later selection date wasn’t a popular move at the time with everyone. Azinger remembers a high-ranking PGA official complaining, “How are we going to do the team poster?”

This year, Watson threw back one of those picks. He had only three, not four.

Imagine if Watson had followed either of Azinger’s moves and waited longer. Do you think Billy Horschel, who won two FedEx Cup events and the $10 million bonus, wouldn’t have made the team then? Ditto for Chris Kirk. Maybe even Ryan Palmer.

Watson reiterated that he wanted players who were peaking at the right time. It doesn’t really look like that’s what he got. A player’s form can change in two weeks, for better or worse under the intensity and the spotlight of the Ryder Cup.

What if Watson had a blank slate right now and could pick any 12 American players he wanted? Well, Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Jason Dufner would’ve been on that list if they were available but they’re not. We’ll never know whom Watson would have selected so let’s do the next best thing: Which 12 Americans would you pick for the Ryder Cup lineup if it were up to you?

Here’s my list, with a couple of surprises just to juice up the conversation:

The Keepers

Bubba Watson. Look, he’s the only American who won a major this year. Never mind that his game hasn’t traveled very well overseas and that he was recently off-target. He missed the cut at the British Open, then didn’t finish better than 29th in his next four appearances. Yes, he did finally play solidly at the BMW Championship and finish second. With the whole FedEx Cup on the line, the best he could manage at East Lake was 14th out of 29 players—middle of the pack. He’s not coming into the Ryder Cup sizzling hot but then again, with Bubba you never know. So you’ve gotta have him on the team.

Rickie Fowler. It might’ve been a reach when Corey Pavin picked Fowler for that forgettable Ryder Cup in Wales but Fowler came up big-time in his singles match. He’d been in a down cycle for some time, though, until this year after working with coach Butch Harmon, and he played his way into contention, more or less, in all four majors. It was an impressive year, his swing looks better, and, because his ball-striking is so improved, that’s taken the pressure off his putting and he’s done better on the greens. Is it a concern that he didn’t win a tournament this year? Yes, but he has quietly risen to No. 10 in the world rankings, believe it or not. Fowler is a must-have and an option as a partner for Bubba, who isn’t the easiest guy to pair up due to his idiosyncrasies.

Matt Kuchar. He is the PGA Tour’s Mr. Consistent and while his tee-to-green game has improved, his strength is getting the ball in the hole. That’s the secret to match play and Kuchar can get phenomenally hot on the greens despite his uniquely awkward taking-my-own-pulse grip. Kooch has played in seven Ryder Cup matches and lost only twice, with three wins and two halves. On a team that perennially loses, that’s practically MVP material.

Zach Johnson. The man from Iowa remains one of the most underrated players in the game, especially given his lack of power of the tee. He can’t dominate a course with his length but he’s got one of the best short games around. Remember when he chunked that shot in the water on the last hole in Tiger’s tournament, then dropped and holed out with a wedge? He’s 6-4-1 in three Ryder Cups and when he’s at his best on the greens, he’s right there with Steve Stricker as the deadliest putter on Tour.

Jim Furyk. Well, Furyk played his way onto this team, there’s no two ways about it. At No. 5, he is the highest American in the world rankings and he’s a Ryder Cup warhorse. He’s done everything this year but win and that, despite his excellent play to get into contention, is a concern because he hasn’t played the closing holes well enough to win and it’s become chronic. How will that play out in the Ryder Cup? Maybe it won’t, but it does give you pause. Also, he’s 9-17-4 in seven previous Ryder Cup appearances. That’s nine wins in 30 matches. He’s a tough competitor, though, and his rejuvenated performance this year means forget the record book, there aren’t any Europeans lining up who want to play him.

Jimmy Walker. Walker had three wins before we were halfway through February but it’s not as if he’s been cold. March and July were the only months in 2014 that he didn’t rack up at least one top-10. So he’s a Ryder Cup rookie, so what? He’s near the top in driving distance stats and in putting stats. That’s exactly the kind of player you want for match play. A good putter is hard to beat and that’s why Walker is so often in contention. Would it be better if he’d gotten a fourth win in the last few months? Sure. Three wins six months ago still beats every other candidate on this list by a mile.

Hunter Mahan. One thing about Mahan is that when he wins, his effortless swing and sweet putting stroke make him look like an absolute world-beater. The reality is that he’s 32, owns six career wins and hasn’t been noticeable in a major championship. With few of the American Ryder Cup candidates stepping up in July and August to do anything to impress, Mahan earned a spot on the team with his immaculate finish at Barclays. He was the world-beater Hunter that week and even his chipping, a longtime sore spot, looks pretty good these days. He was having a dismal year but turned it around with a 15th in Akron, seventh at the PGA and the Barclays win. Watson has to hope the last three weeks of the FedEx Cup -- 64th, 59th and 23rd -- were just a post-victory hangover.

Keegan Bradley. This was not the kind of season we expected from Bradley, who has gone two full years without a victory. He had six top-10s and yes, a fourth in Akron. His last four starts, Captain Tom, were missed cut at PGA; 53rd, Barclays; 16th, Deutsche Bank; and withdrew, BMW, after a 71-72 start that included a ruling Bradley later wondered about and decided he’d rather have a clear conscience than continue. Maybe that time off will refresh Bradley and Mickelson but seriously, Bradley is not delivering what Watson was looking for -- someone who’s peaking at the right time. His history helps. He was 3-1 at the last Ryder Cup and seemed like a great pairing for Mickelson but Bradley, too, lost a crucial singles match. I was considering cutting Bradley but who else is out there? Harris English fell off the map late in the season, Ryan Moore did a slow fade and Ryan Palmer had a nice but unspectacular run. I’ll take Bradley for his evil-eye look, if nothing else.

Jordan Spieth. He’s the boy wonder of the PGA Tour, no doubt about it. But he’s got exactly one victory, the John Deere Classic of 2013 and no wins this year. Spieth had a chance to win a handful of tournaments this year and didn’t have the right stuff on the back nine Sunday. That was a gritty runner-up finish at the Masters but he never pressured Bubba Watson on the back nine at all. Worse, check out his last two months: 36th, British Open; 49th, Bridgestone; missed cut, PGA; 22nd, Barclays; 29th, Deutsche Bank; 8th, BMW; and 27th out of 29 at the Tour Championship, thanks to a third-round 80. Spieth is a talent but he’s not peaking right now. It was tempting to cut him but he’s a gamer. It’s worth getting him experience for his future Ryder Cup career now, no matter what. You try him out in a four-ball match and if he plays well, you send him out again. If not, you sit him until singles and two years from now, he understands what the Ryder Cup is really like first-hand.

The Cuts

Phil Mickelson. Phil has had two good weeks in the last 14 months -- that British Open win an eon ago in 2013 and that runner-up finish at the PGA where he stumbled near the finish. Those two finishes all but earned him enough points to get a spot on the team. His game was so spotty and he was apparently so fatigued, he couldn’t wait to pull out of the FedEx Cup, which he did. His short putting was a problem all year, he ranks 159th in putting from inside five feet. So was his driving. He’s known for his spiffy wedge play but the stats say different -- he ranks 167th in greens hit from inside 100 yards and 156th in proximity to the hole on shots from 125-150 yards. Maybe he’ll turn it on Ryder Cup week and be amazing, maybe he won’t. If I knew Phil was definitely going to rise to this occasion, he’d be a no-brainer pick but he’s 44, his arthritis has to factor in this somehow and if he plays, nobody is going to concede him any short putts. I’m moving on to the next era.

Webb Simpson. His only win this season came last October and his best finishes, third at Memphis and Greenbrier, came against weak fields. He rallied after a Barclay missed cut to get ninth at the Deutsche Bank but when he had an outside chance to win the last day, he posted a lackluster 71. He was 53rd at the BMW and 23rd of 29 at the Tour Championship. A letdown, perhaps, after making the Ryder Cup team as a pick and not having a shot at the FedEx Cup? Maybe. He basically made the team because he once won a U.S. Open and because in 2012 at Medinah, he partnered well with Bubba Watson, winning twice by 5 & 4 margins. He lost his singles match Sunday, though, when the U.S. needed him.

Patrick Reed. Those two wins were a long time ago, in January and March, and were followed by a lot of missed cuts. Reed showed some late-season improvement -- fourth in Akron and ninth at Barclays -- but he was otherwise a non-factor at the end of the season. You don’t judge a player by one round but, ahem, Reed blew up to an 82 to miss the third-round cut at Deutsche Bank. Along with a missed cut at the British Open and 58th at the PGA, that’s a red flag.

The Replacements

Billy Horschel. The only defense for not having him on the Ryder Cup team is that he’s probably exhausted. There was the FedEx Cup whirlwind, two wins and the big prize. And then his wife gave birth to their first child two days later. He’s got to be whipped. That said, it’s a glaring gaffe that he was left off the team. His absence rivals Lee Janzen being left off in the ’95 team and David Duval being passed over in ’97. Watson wanted someone who was peaking? Horschel was 38 under par in the last three FedEx Cup events. The next best score was Rory McIlroy at -27.

Chris Kirk. Well, you knew old-school Captain Tom was going to pick veterans with experience, preferably with major championship wins. Watson chose grizzled vets Lanny Wadkins and Raymond Floyd with his wild-card picks in ’93 and they Watson look like a genius. Kirk is 29 and a new face. His casual approach to golf makes him look cool and uninterested but you could see he was nervous during that Deutsche Bank win, which should’ve been enough to get him on the team, or that fourth-place finish at the Tour Championship, which should’ve been the clincher. The team had already been picked, however. He also fits my gets-the-ball-in-the-hole requirement. He ranks 22nd in strokes gained putting and ninth in scrambling.

Tiger Woods. How did Captain Watson miss this ploy? You pick Tiger and let his back injury play out to the 11th hour. If Woods isn’t healthy enough to play or sharp enough, you gain a month to watch the FedEx Cup play out and now you can replace him with the obvious choice, Horschel. (Of course, keeping Azinger’s original late selection date would’ve made this ploy unnecessary.) If Tiger does get healthy and show a modicum of form, what the hell, half a Tiger is still better than most of the other options. And as a pick, you don’t have to play him five times. Maybe you just have him there on site to keep the Europeans guessing and wondering and when golf’s biggest stick going to come off the bench. Or there’s Ryan Moore.

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