No Easy Solution

As the first FedEx Cup was awarded to Tiger Woods on Sunday evening, my thoughts turned to another cup competition, the 2008 Ryder Cup.

The United States Ryder Cup team was dominated at Oakland Hills in 2004 and lost to the Europeans, 18 1/2-9 1/2. At the rain-soaked K Club in Ireland two years later, the Americans lost by the same score.

The American golfers badly want to win the Ryder Cup and end the European domination, but they may face a tough choice this time next year. The matches will be held immediately after the Tour Championship, from Sept. 16-21, at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky. If no changes are made to the FedEx Cup playoff system, the top American players may be torn between focusing on the FedEx Cup, and the millions of dollars up for grabs, or taking time off to prepare for golf’s biggest team competition.

After he completed his final round at the Tour Championship, Jim Furyk, the third-ranked player in the world, said, “Guys will analyze their schedules and priorities. And for a lot of players Ryder Cup is very, very important.”

Steve Stricker earned $1.26 million for winning the Barclays Championship and competed in all four playoff events. For coming in second place in the FedEx Cup points race, he added $3 million to his retirement account. But even with that financial windfall, he said the Ryder Cup would be on his mind if he were to find himself in the same situation next year.

“It would be very difficult,” he said. “For me, playing on my first Ryder Cup team, I think the adrenaline would be flowing. But with that said, I don’t know if I would be able to play my best golf.”

Playing their best would likely be the major concern for many of the top American players, who have faltered in recent Ryder Cups.

Nearly every player on the 2006 United States Ryder Cup team played in at least three of the playoff events (Chris DiMarco, Chad Campbell and J.J. Henry played only two). And other players who may be on next year’s team — Woody Austin, Boo Weekley, John Rollins, Hunter Mahan, Charles Howell III and Stricker — played in all four events.

If the Ryder Cup were this week, the Europeans would be a much fresher group. Just four players on the 2006 European team competed in the FedEx Cup playoffs, and only Sergio Garcia played in all four events. Padraig Harrington, Luke Donald and Henrik Stenson each played three.

“We have a few Europeans that play on our Tour full time,” said Tiger Woods Sunday evening after he won the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup. “And I’m sure a few of them will probably play in the playoff system, but not their entire team. We have our entire team playing the playoff system, which adds to the fact that it’s going to be a little more difficult for us to do and then compete in the Ryder Cup the very following week.”

“Guys are mentally and physically tired out here,” said Howell, who will be part of the U.S. team competing in two weeks at Royal Montreal in the Presidents Cup, where fatigue could also be an issue.

He was asked if the European team would have the edge next year if most of the players skipped the FedEx Cup. “Absolutely!,” he said. “They’ll be rested and ready to go.”

When Stricker was asked if he would consider taking a week off during the playoffs to prepare for the Ryder Cup, he didn’t miss a beat. “Yes, if I knew I had qualified all the way through the Tour Championship, I would take a week off.”

Furyk worries that the quality of golf in the Ryder Cup will suffer if players compete in all the playoff events. “I think the way things are scheduled right now, it’s really unfortunate,” he said. “You know, it’s going to be tough, and in some ways it’s not really fair to the players or to the PGA of America [the organizer of the Ryder Cup].”

Adjustments to the playoff system are expected, but some things are beyond the control of the PGA Tour. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational is scheduled for July 28-August 3. The PGA Championship at Oakland Hills outside Detroit, the season’s final major, is August 4-10. Assuming the Tour keeps the tournament in Greensboro, N.C., the next week, there would be no wiggle room on the calendar to move up the four-round playoff before the Ryder Cup.

Howell said that Jack Nicklaus, the captain of this year’s U.S. Presidents Cup team, is letting the players prepare on their own before heading to Montreal for their matches against the International team.

“He just said to be sure to arrive rested,” Howell said.

If the members of captain Paul Azinger’s 2008 Ryder Cup team want to pursue next year’s $10 million FedEx Cup prize, they won’t have that luxury.