Race for Ryder Cup spots is one big mind game

Race for Ryder Cup spots is one big mind game

Hunter Mahan must deal with Ryder Cup questions for three more weeks.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The two-week break between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl is one of the most tedious stretches in sports, an unending parade of hype, meaningless sound bites and whispers of naughty linemen sneaking off to strip clubs.

Golf fans this month are experiencing their own season-ending purgatory — the 16-day gap between the end of the PGA Championship and the Sept. 2 press conference at which U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger will announce his four wildcard picks.

The difference: Golf’s version has intrigue.

Buoyed by the first round of the FedEx Cup playoffs, this two-week stretch is a complex dance in which the captains are trying to gauge the players’ games, the players are trying to read the captains’ minds, and no one is trying to say too much — or, for that matter, too little. It’s compelling stuff.

Exhibit A: Britain’s Paul Casey, who said Thursday at the Barclays that he wants his countryman Ian Poulter to qualify for the European team — not so much because he’d love to see Poults bask in Ryder Cup glory, but so that Poulter won’t absorb one of Nick Faldo’s two captain’s picks.

“Everybody is talking about the sort of notable players, the guys who have played Ryder Cup before who are not on the team,” Casey, a two-time Cupper, said after a first-round 66 (Nick, are you getting this? A 66!). “Ian is one, Monty is the other, Darren Clarke, for example, and they have to be my rivals when it comes to a pick. So all I can do is play exceptionally good golf here, put myself on the radar in terms of what Nick is thinking, and you know, if he doesn’t have to pick Ian, then there’s more chance that I might get picked. So I hope Ian plays well.”

Machiavellian? Perhaps. But don’t hate on Casey — that’s the beauty of the Ryder Cup. Guys want it that badly.

Even-keeled Steve Stricker, currently ninth on the U.S. qualifying list — one spot removed from an automatic bid — takes a slightly different tack. He knows Zinger will be glued to the Barclays telecast this week, but Stricker is trying not to think about it.

“I’m sure [Azinger] has a notion one way or the other whether I’m going to be on that team or not, and if I play well, it’s just going to help my cause, and if not, it may add some doubt,” Stricker said Tuesday. “I’m just going to have to try to block that all out.”

Kenny Perry, who has already locked up a spot on the U.S. team, doesn’t have the same distraction. But that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about who he’d like to see in Kentucky as his teammates. “I’ve said all along, I want the guy that makes birdies,” Perry said Wednesday. “I told Paul, he needs to go to the list — everybody knows our stats on Tour, and the Ryder Cup is about making birdies. You need to go to a guy who is an aggressive player who makes lots of birdies. I would personally love to play with J.B. Holmes.”

Another birdie machine and prospective Ryder Cupper, Hunter Mahan, torched Ridgewood Thursday with a 62, then fielded questions about — what else? — the Ryder Cup. Only they weren’t the kind of questions players like to encounter.

Mahan, a 26-year-old rising star from Texas, took a lashing from both the media and the PGA of America a couple weeks ago after telling GOLF Magazine he’d heard other pros say the Ryder Cup isn’t fun.

“I made a mistake and learned from it and try to move on from it,” Mahan said today. “I talked to the right people and clarified everything and got everything out in the open with them. I think it turned out fine in the end.”

We’ll know for sure Sept. 2.