What we learned about the Ryder Cup at the WGC Match Play

Monday February 25th, 2008
<strong>Second Round of Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial</strong><br /><br />Phil Mickelson had a shaky start on Friday, but he made three birdies in a row to finish at seven under.
Donna McWilliam/AP

Every time the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship rolls around, I think of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's line about old soldiers fading away.

That's just how this tournament usually ends — in a slow, quiet fade. It's ironic because it's otherwise one of the most interesting and dramatic events of the year. Match play is great because every hole has an outcome — win, lose or draw. That blows away stroke play for drama. By Sunday, however, only two players remain, and that's just not enough, even when one of them is Tiger Woods. The second problem is the 36-hole final (or 29 in the case of Woods's smackdown of Stewart Cink).

While 36 holes is a purer contest, this isn't 1948. Did anybody besides me really watch golf for eight hours on Sunday? During Sunday's broadcast, NBC's Johnny Miller said exactly what I've been writing ever since this event began — an 18-hole finish would be better. And it wouldn't have left NBC in the pickle it faced when Tiger's match was over early and the network had 80 minutes to fill. (Even when a miracle happened and Woods agreed to go to the NBC booth to chat, Dan Hicks wouldn't quit talking over the highlight video, and Tiger couldn't get a word in edgewise.)

Sunday morning's telecast was the dullest stretch. With just one match in progress, the Golf Channel folks were hard-pressed to fill the lulls between shots. The second 18 — or the second 11, as it turned out — was better because of the knowledgeable Miller and his interplay with Gary Koch and Roger Maltbie. I'm sure Miller will hear from the PGA Tour execs about his comments. The fact that he's right doesn't matter.

All this leads us to a discussion of the next big match play event, the Ryder Cup, which will be held at Valhalla in Louisville this September. One of the more interested WGC viewers this week had to be the U.S. team captain, Paul Azinger. He has a solid foursome to build on, four guys who are practically locks to make the team — Woods, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk. Another foursome emerged at the WGC — Cink, Woody Austin, Justin Leonard and Boo Weekley.

Cink is a self-proclaimed underachiever in stroke-play events, but he's a match-play killer. He crushed Sergio Garcia in singles at the 2006 Ryder Cup, one of the only highlights for the U.S. team. Last week, he singlehandedly took down half of Europe, beating Miguel Angel Jimenez, Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie in the first three rounds. Then he edged the U.S. Open champ, Angel Cabrera, in the next round. Yes, Cink was pounded by Woods in the final, but there is no shame in that. Unless Cink doesn't break 80 the whole month of August, he'll be on the team.

\nSo will Austin, whose national pride and enthusiasm helped unite the American team in last year's Presidents Cup. Even though he's prone to bouts of self-loathing, Aquaman has no give-up in him. He came from behind to beat Adam Scott in extra holes and then knocked off Weekley in a tight match. He's the team mascot the Americans have been sorely missing in recent Ryder Cups.

\nLeonard, who made the putt at Brookline in 1999 that set off the Americans' inappropriate celebration, has not been on the team since. He ran out of gas in the fifth round this week against Cink, but until then he played like the second coming of Tom Kite, hitting fairways and greens and holing putts. He looked like the Leonard of old, who the U.S. could have used in any of the last three Ryder Cups. I expect Leonard to make the team on points this year.

That leaves Weekley, who can seem almost cartoonish at times. (Martin Kaymer, his first-round opponent, had to school him in match play etiquette like conceding putts and the order of play.) Still, the guy is such a solid ballstriker that he beat Kaymer and then squashed Sergio Garcia in a match that featured almost no conversation. Weekley, you may recall, kept the incorrect card that Garcia signed at last year's PGA Championship, leading to Garcia's disqualification. If the U.S. has someone besides Cink who can beat Sergio in match play, that's enough reason to put him on the team right now.

Candidates for the last four spots include the Masters champ, Zach Johnson; veteran war horses like Scott Verplank, David Toms and Davis Love; Hunter Mahan, who distinguished himself in the Presidents Cup; J.B. Holmes, who was victimized by Tiger's first-round comeback and has to prove he can play well outside the Arizona desert; Jonathan Byrd, an underrated talent who sent Ernie Els and Andres Romero home from the WGC; and young guns such as D.J. Trahan and Lucas Glover.

One more note that could have Ryder Cup implications. I thought Sergio Garcia might finally be ready for a big year, but he showed up in Tucson with two putters in his bag. He obviously hasn't solved his issues on the green. Not surprisingly, he was gone after two rounds. Free advice, Sergio — try the claw.\n

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