LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Just as July is the best part of the NBA year, with the palace intrigue of trades and free agency, the PGA Championship is when Ryder Cup fascination peaks. Sure, the three-day exhibition next month at Gleneagles will be good fun, but it’s only golf. Filling out the teams is a combustible mix of sociology, backroom politics and old-fashioned popularity contests, and the heat of the PGA brings everything to a boil.
The good news is that if you thought the Ryder Cup situation was unstable coming into the PGA, the first round at Valhalla only made things messier. Which is exactly how we like it.
For U.S. captain Tom Watson the first round brought more bad news leavened by a few rays of hope.
Tiger Woods looked reasonably sound of body throughout an unsurprisingly sloppy 74. Watson has spent months parsing his words about Woods, saying he’d burn one of his three captain’s picks on him if Tiger was healthy and playing well. Right now it’s iffy on both accounts. Unless Woods can somehow put together three very low rounds going forward he will not qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs, denying him precious reps to find his game and prove to Watson that he deserves a spot on the team before Capt. America announces his selections on Sept. 2, following the Deutsche Bank Championship.
Woods would have the option to play the next few weeks on the European Tour, but is arguably the greatest player of all time going to grind his way through the Czech Masters or Italian Open just to prove a point? Hard to imagine.
Of course, an extra spot potentially opened up for Woods when Dustin Johnson left the Tour due to his suspension/leave. (Johnson used his overpowering length to go 3-0 at the ’12 Ryder Cup.) More places may yet come available based on the attrition rate at the PGA. Matt Kuchar withdrew Thursday morning due to a bad back -- how trendy -- while defending champ Jason Dufner was felled after 10 holes by a neck malady. The Duf sounded particularly grim trudging through the parking lot.
“"I'll play golf again when I'm healthy,” he said. “That could be at the Barclays, that could be next year, that could be 2016. I refuse to be out here and not be healthy and not give myself a chance to be competitive. I've been feeling pretty bad all week. I felt bad last week. I haven't made a birdie in 45 holes and I'm just not able to play golf right now. I don't need to be out here. I tried to do what I could to be able to compete some and give it a go, but it is just pointless."
Let’s be charitable and assume that both Kuchar and Dufner can get healthy over the next month. Kuchar is among the six locks to make the U.S. team, along with Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk, Jimmy Walker, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth.
Numbers 7-17 on the U.S. points list are exceptionally bunched up, and any three of these players can secure their spot with a strong finishing kick at the PGA Championship and the ensuing Barclays and Deutsche Bank: Patrick Reed, Dufner, Zach Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley, Brendon Todd, Ryan Moore, Chris Kirk, Webb Simpson, Harris English and Kevin Na.
Naturally, who qualifies will have a big impact on the subsequent captain’s picks. Among the six players who have already clinched a spot are two Ryder rookies, Spieth and Walker. (Reed is also a would-be rookie.) That makes Watson unlikely to take a flier on a guy like Moore, who’s been hot lately but never proven his bona fides in the crucible of the Cup.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the standings don’t change over the next three tournaments. Watson would surely add more experience with Mickelson, who has been a part of every U.S. Ryder and Presidents Cup team since 1994 and has grown into a mentor to many of the best young Americans. Mickelson’s closing 62 at Firestone and a solid 69 to start the PGA pretty much guarantee he’ll be a captain’s pick, if necessary.
Mickelson’s potent pairing with Keegan Bradley (5-1-2 combined at the last Ryder and Prez Cups) certainly helps his young protégé’s chances of getting picked. Bradley hasn’t won a tournament in two and a half years but he’s been in good form this summer, tying for 4th at the U.S. Open as well as at Greenbrier and Akron.
That leaves one pick. The only other Ryder veterans on the radar screen are Simpson and Brandt Snedeker (25th in points). Simpson has been up-and-down all year, missing the cut at the Masters and Open Championship but finishing top-3 at Memphis and the Greenbrier. Watson has a personal affinity for Snedeker but the one-time putting whiz has been struggling with his blade while undergoing a swing change.
So, at this minute, it’s pretty clear Watson would take the studly trio of Woods, Mickelson and Bradley. Where it gets interesting is if a couple of randoms like, say, Kirk and Todd play their way onto the team. If you’re Watson do you then take a rusty Woods over Zach Johnson, a Ryder Cup bulldog and beloved teammate? What if it comes down to Bradley versus Dufner? It is questions like these that make the prognosticating so delicious.
The competition for captain’s selections is even more fierce for the powerhouse European team. Among those who have already pretty much clinched a spot are Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia, Victor Dubuisson and Henrik Stenson, while Jamie Donaldson and Thomas Bjorn are in very good shape to qualify.
That leaves a ninth to player to automatically earn his way onto the team through points and then three picks for Capt. Paul McGinley, who will also announce his selections on Sept. 2. Those fighting for the final four spots include 2010 U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell; former world No. 1 Luke Donald; Ryder Cup monster Ian Poulter; four-time team member Miguel Angel Jimenez; one of the heroes of the 2012 Cup, Francesco Molinari; Lee Westwood, a team leader going back to 1997; and Stephen Gallacher, who is seeking to represent Scotland on home soil and has put together a terrific season on the Euro tour with six top-8 finishes, including a win against a strong field in Dubai.
Back in the spring Jimenez, 50, seemed like a sure thing to make the team. He finished 4th at the Masters, won his senior tour debut the next week and then took the Open de Espana the following month. But the Mechanic has been slumping most of the summer as he has been fighting putting problems. Thursday at Valhalla he shot a one-over 72 while most of the world was under par.
The PGA is of particular importance to European Ryder Cup aspirants because their ensuing tournaments -- in Denmark, Czech Republic and Italy -- are decidedly B-list, offering small purses and few World Ranking points to allow players to move up the duel-track qualifying lists, which are pegged to the European money list and the World Ranking. Jimenez, 50, is wildly popular with fans and fellow players and this is likely his last chance to play a Ryder Cup, but McGinley will be swayed by improving his chances at victory, not sentiment.
The English contingent offers a number of interesting questions. Poulter (currently tied for 11th at the PGA at -3) has only one top-10 finish on either Tour since April, but given his legendary play at past Ryder Cups, does that even matter? Westwood has looked uninspired all season and missed four out of six cuts coming into Valhalla but he found something on Thursday with a 66 to tie for the lead. If, say, he finishes in his traditional third place at the PGA, is that enough to wash away all the preceding mediocrity? Donald is in a similar position, as he has struggled all summer while working on a significant swing change. How much weight does his tremendous Ryder Cup record carry when players like Gallacher and Molinari are playing with more belief?
There is an old saw on Tour that every shot makes somebody happy. That’s particularly true in the zero-sum game of Ryder Cup qualifying. One player will lift the Wannamaker Trophy on Sunday evening but there will be plenty of other winners and losers from both continents. We wouldn’t have it any other way.