There were so many tournaments within a tournament at last week’s Barclays it was, at times, tough to keep track of who was playing for what. Like all the other bubble boys, Tiger Woods arrived with only one short-term goal: survive and advance. A field of 120 teed it up at Ridgewood Country Club, in Paramus, N.J., but only 100 would move on to the second round of the FedEx Cup playoffs, this week’s Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston. Woods, 112th on the points list at the start of the week, remained golf’s biggest question mark until a stellar Sunday 67 shot him to a tie for 12th and up to 65th in points. But the machinations among the FedEx Cup bottom-feeders were the least interesting part of the Barclays.
With a Saturday 64, Dustin Johnson put himself in position for a victory that would redeem his lost summer and propel him into the thick of the player of the year race. Steve Stricker put on a Sunday charge that had him on the precipice of a Tour-best third victory, which would have made him the POY favorite. And if Stricker or Johnson had won, either would have been in the cat bird’s seat in the FedEx points race. Both ultimately fell short, as Matt Kuchar beat Martin Laird with a spectacular birdie on the first playoff hole after Laird suffered a ghastly three-putt from 23 feet on the 72nd green. Kuchar’s first victory of the year, after 10 top 10 finishes, propelled him to No. 1 on the FedEx points list and suddenly put him in the conversation for player of the year. But none of this was as interesting as the Ryder Cup drama that ultimately defined the week.
A dozen players — including Woods — were auditioning for a captain’s pick for their respective team. The Europeans were particularly under the gun as captain Colin Montgomerie was to reveal his three picks following the conclusion of the Johnnie Walker Championship in Scotland; the announcement was due around 1 p.m. EDT, an hour before the final group was to tee off at the Barclays. (U.S. captain Corey Pavin will divulge his choices on Sept. 7, the day after the Deutsche Bank.)
On Sunday no player had more on his mind than Justin Rose. The day before, he had shot a bogeyless 65 to roar into a tie for second. Rose won twice on the PGA Tour earlier this summer, but missed cuts at the British Open and PGA Championship hurt his captain’s pick candidacy. Noting the timing of Montgomerie’s announcement, Rose knew that Saturday was his last chance to try to sway his captain. “Today was the big day for me,” Rose said following his 65. “I had to make a little bit of noise. It’s a tight selection process right now.” It got even tighter when Edoardo Molinari birdied the last three holes at Gleneagles to win for the second time in the last six weeks. That made Molinari pretty much an automatic choice, especially given that his brother, Francesco, had already qualified for the squad and last year they teamed to win the World Cup for Italy.
So now there were only two spots left for a group that included Rose, Paul Casey (ninth in the World Ranking, third at this year’s British Open), Luke Donald (seven worldwide top six finishes this year, 5-1-1 in two previous Ryder Cups) and, not least, Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion. All chose to chase FedEx lucre rather than play at Gleneagles. All but Rose were already on the course as one o’clock neared. Nearly alone on the driving range, Rose dutifully beat balls while his caddie wiped the clubs and surreptitiously checked his cellphone for updates. At 1:01 Rose pulled a vibrating iPhone from his back pocket. False alarm — it was his manager informing Rose that Montgomerie’s announcement had been delayed. Rose balanced the phone on a head cover and kept grinding, but the atmosphere was tense.
“I shouldn’t even be talking to you,” Rose’s wife, Kate, told a nosy reporter. “We’re trying to be very even-keeled. I don’t want Justin to think I’m discussing this. In fact, I think I’ll go into the clubhouse and watch the announcement on the Internet so I don’t appear to be hovering.” So she did.
At 1:12 Rose took another call. It was Monty. The chat was short and to the point: Rose was out. With his best English stiff upper lip, Rose betrayed no emotion and said nothing to his caddie. He struck a few putts and then cordially greeted all the dignitaries and volunteers on the 1st tee. Rose hit a perfect tee shot but ultimately struggled to a 72, falling to 15th place. “It was very, very difficult to put it all out of my mind,” he said afterward.
Casey’s denouement was even more brutal. His caddie is Christian Donald, Luke’s brother, and Casey was paired with Harrington. “With Edoardo doing what he did, there could never have been a happy ending in my group,” said Harrington.
By the time they teed off, Luke Donald was already scorching Ridgewood with a front-nine 28, which had to be unsettling. On the 7th hole Casey saw Caroline Harrington flash a thumbs-up to her hubby’s caddie. “Caroline’s a great friend. She would have said something to me if I had been picked,” Casey said on Sunday night, his eyes watery and his voice shaking. “So at that point I kind of knew that I hadn’t.”
There will be more heartbreak after this week’s Deutsche Bank. Pavin has four picks to choose from among Woods, Zach Johnson, Stewart Cink, Anthony Kim, Sean O’Hair and Rickie Fowler, to name a few. Woods looks like more of a sure thing after his solid week at the Barclays. Still working to incorporate new swing thoughts from instructor Sean Foley, Woods hit a horrendous snap hook out-of-bounds off the 1st tee on Saturday, which he attributed to being “caught between the two swings. And I wasn’t committed to what I was doing.” Otherwise, he reported, “I’m right there. Drove it pretty much on a string all week and really controlled my irons.” We’ll see if captain Pavin is similarly impressed.
He has to be happy with the strong play of Kuchar, who, thanks to a 10th-place tie at the PGA, squeaked onto the U.S. team as the last automatic qualifier. Kuchar got a little Ryder Cup sneak preview in his sudden-death tussle against Laird, a Scotsman who is not on the European side. “Driving out to 18 tee for the playoff the crowd was really excited,” said Kuchar. “I told [a tournament official], this is great prep for the Ryder Cup. I’m in a match-play situation, I’ve got a playoff and I’ve got people going crazy. Playing a European, people cheering out ‘U-S-A.’ I’ll be able to put that in the memory bank and go with it come Ryder Cup time.”
It’s nice that Kuchar has the FedEx to tune up for a more important Cup. For Casey and Rose, points are the only thing left to play for.