Down the far stretch and toward the final turn they come, on a mad dash for the finish of a race within a race. The first to cross the line in late September will trot off with a $10 million bonus check from FedEx.
Then there’s that other contest.
As it does every other autumn, this year’s FedEx Cup playoff series doubles as a sprint for golf’s ultimate unpaid honor, a summons to compete in the Ryder Cup in Chaska, Minn., on Sept. 30–Oct. 2. It’s a scramble that has taken on both clarity and urgency as we head into the Deutsche Bank Championship this week. Eight spots on the U.S. squad have been secured. That much was settled on Sunday at the Barclays on Long Island, where Tiger Woods, dressed as Patrick Reed—no wait, it was the other way around—snagged a win that guaranteed him a tee time at Hazeltine. Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker, Brooks Koepka, Brandt Snedeker and Zach Johnson—also nailed down a spot.
As the rest of the contenders thunder on toward Boston, four slots are available on the U.S. team. But it’s no longer a race for Ryder Cup points. It’s become a push for approval from Davis Love III.
Love still has time to finalize his captain’s picks, which he’ll make with input from the Ryder Cup task force. But it’s hard not to wonder how he sees things for himself, peering through field glasses like a seasoned handicapper, the better to determine which of his thoroughbreds is running best.
One he’s most certainly eying closely is Rickie Fowler, who was getting on so nicely at the Barclays before a Sunday stumble. As the 54-hole leader (and, ahem, task-force member) Fowler could have made things simpler for himself and Love, as a third-place or better finish at Bethpage Black would have put him on the team. But the Man in Orange faltered, and now he’ll need a captain’s nod to wear red, white and blue.
Does Fowler deserve it?
“Very simple decision,” Nick Faldo said on CBS as Rickie was unraveling with a final-nine, four-over 39. Fowler, Sir Nick noted, was “keen as mustard, and rises to the occasion.” In the Ryder Cup, “he has been there and done it.”
It’s a popular perception (the Tour is like a sitcom; Everybody Loves Rickie?) but Faldo’s capsule summary is only partly true. In two Ryder Cup appearances, Fowler has halved plenty. But he has yet to win a match; his record is 0-3-5.
He has, of course, won elsewhere, including at the Deutsche Bank last year. But he’ll have a crowded pack of potential captain’s picks around him, a mix of eager colts and seasoned steeds alike.
Until recently, most pundits had put Jim Furyk out to pasture. At 46, and sidelined with a bum wrist for much of 2016, he’d already been selected as a Ryder Cup vice-captain, adding to the sense that his competitive days in the event were done. But then came a summer surge. A runner-up finish in the U.S. Open, followed by two top 10s and a record-setting 58 at the Travelers Championship, put Furyk back into the conversation—a discussion that will only get more heated if he stages a strong showing in Boston.
Conventional wisdom among couch potatoes is that it’s time for the Americans to clear the stables and replenish them with younger blood. That’s all well and good, but among the eight who have qualified, only Mickelson and the Johnsons have played in more than one Ryder Cup. Love insists that he’s not thinking that way; in making his selections, he says he won’t be ageist.
But perhaps he should.
Today’s youth movement, after all, includes the likes of Justin Thomas, a 23-year-old bomber without Ryder Cup baggage, and a buddy of both Spieth and Fowler, in case Love has chemistry in mind. Looking toward fresh faces (26-year-old Tony Finau, anyone?) might mean looking past such graybeards as Matt Kuchar, 38, and Bubba Watson, 37. Both men competed on the last three U.S. Ryder Cups teams but are rightly regarded as great players anyway.
J.B. Holmes, 34, isn’t bad either, and there’s a solid argument for his inclusion. Having played on the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team, he’s the rare American thirty-something who has actually felt what it is like to win.
Let’s see. Who else?
Bill Haas or James Hahn, both 34? A resurgent Jason Dufner, 39?
The race goes on, and the dust won’t really settle until Sept. 12, after the BMW Championship, when three of Love’s captain’s picks are due. (The deadline for the fourth is Sept. 25 at the close of the Tour Championship.)
This week, though, expect a clearer picture to come into view.
If it’s anything like the Barclays, where a pair of young Americans came down the stretch to gallery-chants of “USA! USA!”, expect the playoff air in Boston to tingle with excitement.
There’s a lot at stake.
They’ll be playing for a lot of money too.