Nothing has underscored the dramatic difference in depth between the European and American tours like the wild-card choices. That’s what makes this month’s Ryder Cup more interesting than usual.
European captain Jose Maria Olazabal didn’t really have 10 players he was dying to pick for his two spots. He pretty much had two obvious choices, Ian Poulter and Nicolas Colsaerts. American captain Davis Love III, however, had seven nearly interchangeable players from which to select four.
In short, it is a good sign for the U.S. team that during a Ryder Cup summer, for once, some American players stepped up. The difference between the two teams during the last 15 years of European domination is fairly obvious. When it came time to make the wild-card picks to round out the team, the Europeans had a buffet table full of choices while the Americans faced a bare pantry.
Think back to 2010 when captain Corey Pavin was looking for four players. He had to take Tiger Woods, even though Woods was struggling to find his game, because there were so few other attractive options. Pavin took Stewart Cink for his experience even though Cink was enduring a down year. He took Zach Johnson, who won at Colonial in May but hadn’t done a lot else, and on potential alone, perhaps, he took Rickie Fowler. With Fowler and Jeff Overton, who made the team on points, Pavin’s lineup made history because that duo became the first Americans to play in a Ryder Cup without ever having won a PGA Tour event. Which players with stirring seasons did Pavin pass over? Uh, none. Anthony Kim? He had a bad thumb. Charley Hoffman? He won the Deutsche Bank with a closing 62, but really, Charley Hoffman? Anyone else? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?...
Back to the present. The 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team looks like the strongest lineup the Americans have fielded in the 21st century. Past U.S. teams were top-heavy with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, but the bottom portions of the lineups were weak. Now that Europeans are hogging the top spots in the world rankings, it’s the Americans who suddenly look a little deeper through all 12 spots.
Related Photos: The 2012 U.S. Team | The European Team
Here's how Team USA stacks up:
Tiger Woods: Sorry, this Tiger Woods isn’t the unrelenting, explosive, amazing Tiger Woods who won his first 14 major championships in about 10 minutes. And, sorry, but he’s not the Rollie Fingers of golf when it comes to closing out wins anymore. However, Woods is back to being among the best players in the game. You have to admit that, don’t you, what with his three victories (more than anyone except Rory McIlroy), one runner-up finish and two thirds? His three wins weren’t on rinky-dink tracks, either. They came at Muirfield Village, Bay Hill and Congressional. His last five finishes were 3rd, 8th, 11th, 38th and 3rd. Plus, it was encouraging that he snapped out of his final-round funk and made a front-nine charge at TPC at Boston in the Deutsche Bank Championship. Problem was, he was too far back. It’s OK for Rory McIlroy to talk big, but not many Europeans, if they were honest, want to face Woods in singles on Sunday. Stats: 17 events, 3-1-2 (firsts-seconds-thirds), 7 top-10s. Season grade: A-minus.
Phil Mickelson: It was a good thing Mickelson played his way onto the team because after a dismal summer -- plus the fact that he’s not getting any younger and he began fiddling with a claw grip -- there was growing speculation that Lefty might left off this squad. He’s still his mercurial, impossible-to-predict self however. Until the Deutsche Bank, all of his top-five finishes came in February, April or May. Since June, he was 44 over par in tournament play until he tied for fourth in Boston. He’s had some ugly moments on the greens, yet he still ranks sixth in the tour’s putting stats (strokes gained). He also ranks 107th in greens hit in regulation, a decidedly un-Phil-like number. He’s still got game and the fact is, he outplayed the field at the Masters on 70 of the 72 holes but beat himself with a pair of inconsolable triple bogeys. He was looking like a question mark before Boston. Now he looks like a team member who will contribute. Stats: 20 events, 1-1-1, 6 top-10s. Season grade: C.
Keegan Bradley: The way Bradley plays with emotion when he gets in contention reminds you of someone, doesn’t it? Perhaps a young Arnold Palmer? Bradley’s two wins in 2011, including a PGA, his near-miss at Riviera this year and his impressive victory at Akron makes you wonder what Fred Couples was thinking when he passed over Bradley for last year’s Presidents Cup team for Bill Haas, whose dad, Jay, was one of Fred’s assistants. Bradley may well turn out to be the emotional heart of this team, the Paul Azinger or Sergio Garcia of the squad. He isn’t a star of the future, he’s already a star now. Mark him down for all five matches, he’s a horse. Stats: 23 events, 1-0-1, 5 top-10s. Season grade: A-minus.
Matt Kuchar: He is the Mr. Consistent on the PGA Tour. He churns out top-10 finishes like an assembly-line worker, even if he only rarely has the exceptional week needed to win. He took home The Players impressively, and he’s shown he can deal with match-play pressure. His form is a little cool at the moment, as his last three finishes were MC, 38th, 35th. He’s a team-room star, however, who trades trash talk with Mickelson and can take him down in Ping-Pong. Stats: 20 events, 1-0-1, 8 top-10s. Season grade: B-plus.
Webb Simpson: The man who may have morphed into the best American player of 2011 had a quiet 2012 until he grabbed the U.S. Open at Olympic Club. He’s done a nice job of pacing himself this year, partly because he and his wife had their second child in July. He’s not completely on top of his game at the moment, having two missed cuts in his last four events along with a 22nd and an 18th. But had you compiled a list of the 12 players you would’ve wanted on this team at the start of 2012, Simpson’s name would’ve been one of the first three names you would’ve picked. Stats: 20 events, 1-0-1, 6 top-10s. Season grade: A-minus.