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Tiger Woods in the Ryder Cup is no sure thing under Tom Watson, plus the Van Cynical Mailbag

Tiger Woods
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Tiger Woods at the 2010 Ryder Cup. Woods has played in seven of the last eight Ryder Cup competitions.

We don’t know how long golf is going to be Tiger-less. Tiger Woods probably doesn’t know yet, either.

So while we can hope for the best, we should probably expect the worst. Maybe Woods will bounce back quickly from back surgery and play the British Open in July or the PGA Championship in August, although that’s not what I expect.

There is a dearth of information about Tiger’s microdiscectomy -- disc surgery on his back. There is a chance he won’t be back before the PGA Championship. And if he’s not back for that, he’ll miss the FedEx Cup series, too, since he currently ranks 200th on that points list and won’t qualify to play in them.

Let’s not stop there. If he hasn’t played a tournament before September, could Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson really make Tiger one of his three wild-card picks for the team? Tiger would have to assure him that he’s 100 percent fit and ready to compete, but if he hasn’t played in anything that would be a difficult call to make.

That’s a what-if scenario we don’t have to worry about yet, but it raises the reality of this situation. Tiger could miss the rest of the 2014 season. All of it.

Canadian Graham DeLaet underwent a similar disc surgery in 2010. No two back surgeries and recoveries are identical, but DeLaet’s recovery was slow. It was three months before he could realistically chip and putt. It was six months before he played in a tournament and even then, he said recently, he came back too soon. He has also said he may never be 100 percent again, possibly due to that rushed return.

Tiger’s surgery was in March. Six months takes him into September. His long-term recovery is a higher priority than his short-term tournament schedule. He’ll turn 39 in December and he has another 10 years or more to play high-level competitive golf. Rushing back to play in one Ryder Cup, if his physical condition is even slightly iffy, would be an unwise decision.

That’s your worst-case scenario. Maybe Tiger’s recovery will be quicker than expected. He is the fittest man in golf. Maybe he can make it to the tee at Hoylake in July and salvage some of this summer. We’ll only know what’s going on, though, when Tiger decides to tell us.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Ryder Cup team has taken on an interesting new look. Four of the top eight players on the current points list are guys you wouldn’t necessarily have penciled in a year ago -- Jimmy Walker, Jordan Spieth, Harris English and Patrick Reed. The other four are among the usual suspects -- Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson and Jason Dufner.

The top nine on the points list will make the team. Phil Mickelson has suffered a disappointing start to the year and currently holds down the ninth spot. That raises an interesting possibility. What if Phil and Tiger both don’t make the team on points? Do you automatically pick either one of them? If not, whom else do you take? Webb Simpson? Zach Johnson? Chris Kirk? Rickie Fowler? Steve Stricker?

I’m sure Tom Watson was under no illusion that it was going to be easy captaining the American squad at a Ryder Cup in Scotland, but with the current state of Tiger and Phil, the core of the U.S. team for the last 17 years, his job seems unusually challenging. He’s the right man for that job.

Meanwhile, let’s dip into the snuff can -- I mean, the Van Cynical Mailbag:

Van Cynical, Fox Sports named Joe Buck and Greg Norman to anchor U.S Open coverage. Good or bad decision? -- Howard Riefs via Twitter

The Shark is very opinionated so he could be good. However, a lot of golf analysts make their first slightly critical comment, get angry feedback from a player or his wife and then back off and go straight vanilla after that. It’s a long list. I like the Shark but I don’t know if he wants to be as confrontational as Johnny Miller or Brandel Chamblee, neither of whom would be seen as remotely confrontational in any area except the mollycoddled, rose-colored, hello-friends world of televised golf. BuckShark might work, Riefs, but it’s too early to make that call.

Vans, What can the Tour do to spice up formats of truly weak-field events like New Orleans with only about 10 of the top 50 players? There is little reason to watch unless they get lucky and a big name has a big week. Why not try something different? -- Brian Rosenwald via Twitter

The Tour could use a bit more variety, BriRo, I agree. Maybe one more Stableford (the Reno-Tahoe Open has used it the last two years), maybe even a two-man best ball. But the beauty of the sport is watching players play the game, whoever they are. Changing the format or upping the purse won’t attract a significantly better field. The truth is, the only guys who affect interest or attendance are Tiger, Phil and Rory and they’re probably not coming, no matter what. You have to like golf to watch golf. The thrilling finish of the year was in Houston where Matt Jones holed an absurd 40-footer on the 18th green, then pitched in from 40 yards for the win on a playoff hole. That was exciting and dramatic as hell. If it had been Rory and Tiger instead of Matt and Matt, we’d still be talking breathlessly about it. Golf isn’t necessarily boring just because you aren’t familiar with the leaders. Still, one or two exceptions from the same old 72-hole stroke-play format couldn’t hurt.

Van Sickle, As for changing formats, I don’t think that’ll work. I honestly don’t think $10 million would work. -- Jeremy Schilling via Twitter

You’re right about money not being an incentive, J.S. The top players have more money than they can ever spend. Even a three-time PGA Tour winner like Jerry Kelly has amassed close to $20 million in winnings. Tour players pick tourneys to play based upon the date and the course. The purse and the format is not much of a factor for the handful of top players who would make a difference in strength of field.

Van Sickle, Why do people complain about the poor condition of plugged greens when they know it’s a fact of life in the golf world? -- Brian Bailey via Twitter

For the same reason people bitch about roads being under construction, BB. The road is going to be much better in the future but today, the day I’m driving and hitting potholes and getting stuck in a traffic jam, it totally sucks. Nobody takes a long view. In golf, and in most things, it’s all about how it affects me, Al Franken. (Dated '80s reference alert!) Golfers are selfish and golf is a selfish game. There’s always time for a fine whine.

Gary, How long could you putt like Michelle Wie before you needed a wheelchair? -- Bob Ashley via Twitter

Thanks for assuming I could actually get in that position without a wheelchair, Bob. Seriously, it makes my back ache to watch her putt but she’s getting results. Speaking of unorthodox putting methods, the Golf Channel’s “Arnie” special reminds me of how most of Middle America tried to putt in the '60s by copying Arnold Palmer’s unique knock-kneed stance. Now that makes my knees hurt. But hey, I think you’re underestimating how flexible I am at this advanced age, Ashman. Wheelchair? Nah, I could putt like Michelle for a solid hour with only a walker.

O’Cynic, With Miguel Angel Jimenez winning wire-to-wire in Atlanta, is he about to grab the Champions Tour by the throat? If so, is that a good thing? -- Ragan via Twitter

That would be a great thing, Raganomics, if only it were true. The Mechanic isn’t about to repair the Champions circuit. He’s trying to make the Ryder Cup team at 50 so other than the British Senior Open, you may not see him again this year on the senior tour. I don’t think he’s interested camping out in the U.S. for any long periods, either, so I doubt he’ll come over next year unless he’s hooked on winning. American fans definitely enjoy his look -- the ponytail, the cigar, the gut, his "Most Interesting Man in the World" façade. Not to mention his infamous warm-up routine that went viral on the web. I don’t expect him to do more than make the occasional cameo in senior golf. I hope I’m wrong but until then, stay thirsty, my friend.

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