Nothing has underscored the dramatic difference in depth between the European and American tours like the wild-card choices. That’s what makes this month’s Ryder Cup more interesting than usual.
European captain Jose Maria Olazabal didn’t really have 10 players he was dying to pick for his two spots. He pretty much had two obvious choices, Ian Poulter and Nicolas Colsaerts. American captain Davis Love III, however, had seven nearly interchangeable players from which to select four.
In short, it is a good sign for the U.S. team that during a Ryder Cup summer, for once, some American players stepped up. The difference between the two teams during the last 15 years of European domination is fairly obvious. When it came time to make the wild-card picks to round out the team, the Europeans had a buffet table full of choices while the Americans faced a bare pantry.
Think back to 2010 when captain Corey Pavin was looking for four players. He had to take Tiger Woods, even though Woods was struggling to find his game, because there were so few other attractive options. Pavin took Stewart Cink for his experience even though Cink was enduring a down year. He took Zach Johnson, who won at Colonial in May but hadn’t done a lot else, and on potential alone, perhaps, he took Rickie Fowler. With Fowler and Jeff Overton, who made the team on points, Pavin’s lineup made history because that duo became the first Americans to play in a Ryder Cup without ever having won a PGA Tour event. Which players with stirring seasons did Pavin pass over? Uh, none. Anthony Kim? He had a bad thumb. Charley Hoffman? He won the Deutsche Bank with a closing 62, but really, Charley Hoffman? Anyone else? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?…
Back to the present. The 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team looks like the strongest lineup the Americans have fielded in the 21st century. Past U.S. teams were top-heavy with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, but the bottom portions of the lineups were weak. Now that Europeans are hogging the top spots in the world rankings, it’s the Americans who suddenly look a little deeper through all 12 spots.
Here's how Team USA stacks up:
Tiger Woods: Sorry, this Tiger Woods isn’t the unrelenting, explosive, amazing Tiger Woods who won his first 14 major championships in about 10 minutes. And, sorry, but he’s not the Rollie Fingers of golf when it comes to closing out wins anymore. However, Woods is back to being among the best players in the game. You have to admit that, don’t you, what with his three victories (more than anyone except Rory McIlroy), one runner-up finish and two thirds? His three wins weren’t on rinky-dink tracks, either. They came at Muirfield Village, Bay Hill and Congressional. His last five finishes were 3rd, 8th, 11th, 38th and 3rd. Plus, it was encouraging that he snapped out of his final-round funk and made a front-nine charge at TPC at Boston in the Deutsche Bank Championship. Problem was, he was too far back. It’s OK for Rory McIlroy to talk big, but not many Europeans, if they were honest, want to face Woods in singles on Sunday. Stats: 17 events, 3-1-2 (firsts-seconds-thirds), 7 top-10s. Season grade: A-minus.
Phil Mickelson: It was a good thing Mickelson played his way onto the team because after a dismal summer — plus the fact that he’s not getting any younger and he began fiddling with a claw grip — there was growing speculation that Lefty might left off this squad. He’s still his mercurial, impossible-to-predict self however. Until the Deutsche Bank, all of his top-five finishes came in February, April or May. Since June, he was 44 over par in tournament play until he tied for fourth in Boston. He’s had some ugly moments on the greens, yet he still ranks sixth in the tour’s putting stats (strokes gained). He also ranks 107th in greens hit in regulation, a decidedly un-Phil-like number. He’s still got game and the fact is, he outplayed the field at the Masters on 70 of the 72 holes but beat himself with a pair of inconsolable triple bogeys. He was looking like a question mark before Boston. Now he looks like a team member who will contribute. Stats: 20 events, 1-1-1, 6 top-10s. Season grade: C.
Keegan Bradley: The way Bradley plays with emotion when he gets in contention reminds you of someone, doesn’t it? Perhaps a young Arnold Palmer? Bradley’s two wins in 2011, including a PGA, his near-miss at Riviera this year and his impressive victory at Akron makes you wonder what Fred Couples was thinking when he passed over Bradley for last year’s Presidents Cup team for Bill Haas, whose dad, Jay, was one of Fred’s assistants. Bradley may well turn out to be the emotional heart of this team, the Paul Azinger or Sergio Garcia of the squad. He isn’t a star of the future, he’s already a star now. Mark him down for all five matches, he’s a horse. Stats: 23 events, 1-0-1, 5 top-10s. Season grade: A-minus.
Matt Kuchar: He is the Mr. Consistent on the PGA Tour. He churns out top-10 finishes like an assembly-line worker, even if he only rarely has the exceptional week needed to win. He took home The Players impressively, and he’s shown he can deal with match-play pressure. His form is a little cool at the moment, as his last three finishes were MC, 38th, 35th. He’s a team-room star, however, who trades trash talk with Mickelson and can take him down in Ping-Pong. Stats: 20 events, 1-0-1, 8 top-10s. Season grade: B-plus.
Webb Simpson: The man who may have morphed into the best American player of 2011 had a quiet 2012 until he grabbed the U.S. Open at Olympic Club. He’s done a nice job of pacing himself this year, partly because he and his wife had their second child in July. He’s not completely on top of his game at the moment, having two missed cuts in his last four events along with a 22nd and an 18th. But had you compiled a list of the 12 players you would’ve wanted on this team at the start of 2012, Simpson’s name would’ve been one of the first three names you would’ve picked. Stats: 20 events, 1-0-1, 6 top-10s. Season grade: A-minus.
Bubba Watson: Nothing about Bubba is orthodox — not his swing, his game, his personality. But he became a worldwide star when he won the Masters with the shot of the year, that hooked wedge from the pines on the first playoff hole. The shock of winning a major and being thrust onto the world stage threw him for a loop for a while but he’s been quietly getting back into Bubba Golf. He was second in Hartford and 19th, 11th and 10th in his last three outings. He was a highlight of the Americans’ losing effort two years ago in Wales and it’s clear that he relishes match play. He’ll have to find a new running mate since neither Jeff ("Boom, Baby!") Overton nor his pal Rickie Fowler made this squad. Stats: 17 events 1-2-0, 6 top-10s. Season grade: A-minus.
Zach Johnson: During July and August, Johnson had a stretch where he was swinging the club as well as he maybe ever has. It paid off in a victory at his home-state event, the John Deere Classic. If he hadn’t made the team on points, he would have been a logical pick. The secret of the Ryder Cup is that it’s effectively a putting contest and too often, the Americans have gotten outputted. Johnson ranks among the best greensmiths on tour, and he can putt under pressure. He did win a Masters, don’t forget. He ranks seventh on tour in putting and, surprisingly, ninth in birdies per round. The only concern here is that the Zach Attack has backed off a bit. Since his John Deere win, he finished ninth and then had five straight finishes of 38th or higher. Stats: 22 events 2-2-0, 6 top-10s. Season grade: A.
Jason Dufner: The Auburn alum and Cleveland-area native is a late-blooming star on the tour. He is considered one of the better ballstrikers in the game and, because of that, his play is very consistent. He’s made a habit of contending in major championships and is on the cusp of taking his career to the next level. Two wins this year helped. The only question is how his putting will hold up under Ryder Cup pressure. He ranks fifth in greens hit, only 68th in putting, but since he never seems to let anything faze him, he may play his usual solid game. Don’t be surprised if he plays all five matches. Stats: 20 events, 2-1-0, 8 top-10s. Season grade: A-minus.
Steve Stricker: It was a foregone conclusion that Stricker would be a captain’s pick because he’s been the one player that has made Tiger Woods come alive in Ryder Cup team play. Woods likes playing with Stricker, so that was reason enough. Stricker hasn’t had quite as good a year this year as he winds down the number of tournaments he plays. Surprisingly, his putting was a bit off in mid-season, as he has fallen to 45th in the putting stats. His only victory came early in the year, but he’s still solid all around — 15th in greens hit, 13th in scoring, and his mid-iron and short-iron swings look like textbook material. He’s probably been the best putter on tour in the 2000s, so he’s exactly the guy you want in a Ryder Cup. Stats: 17 events, 1-1-0, 7 top-10s. Season grade: B.
Dustin Johnson: He missed part of the early season after a freak boating injury but, more than anyone else, he played his way onto this team as a wild-card pick. In his last five tournaments, he’s finished 9th, 19th, 48th, 3rd and 4th. He’s one of the game’s longest hitters and most intimidating swingers and in the team room, he can hang with anybody. He still hasn’t reached his potential yet. Love picked him not only for the good of this year’s team but for the good of the next five U.S. Ryder Cup teams. Stats: 17 events, 1-0-1, 7 top-10s. Season grade: B.
Brandt Snedeker: He’s not the consistent ballstriker that Stricker is but Snedeker is a putting wizard. He ranks first on the tour in putting stats and he’s been building his reputation as a big-time performer. He contended in the Masters a few years back, and this year he made a nice run at the British Open. He’s not a big hitter, yet he’s fifth in birdies per round on tour, just what you want for match play. Like Johnson, he forced Love to pick him with his recent run of good play, including his FedEx Cup playoff finishes of second and sixth. Stats: 20 events, 1-1-1, 6 top-10s. Season grade: B.
Jim Furyk: The veteran warhorse was a question mark for this team. He had a chance to win the U.S. Open but didn’t play the closing few holes well enough. He should’ve had the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone wrapped up but completely dropped the ball on the 72nd hole, one of the worst collapses in a year of bad collapses. The question was, if you come close a lot and don’t win, is that a positive or a negative? Love decided it was a positive and chose Furyk for his experience. He has definitely regathered his game after the worst year of his career in 2011. He’s looked off with his putting at times but still ranks 31st in putting and, as a real pro, he ranks fifth on tour in scoring average. It’s hard to argue Love’s choice. Stats: 21 events, 0-2-0, 5 top-10s. Season grade: B-minus.
Those Who Just Missed the Cut
Rickie Fowler: Love was one of his biggest backers and defenders as a wild-card choice in Wales two years ago so it seemed like Fowler might have an inside track. He scored his first tour win at Wachovia in early May but here’s the reality check: Fowler hasn’t finished among the top 20 since he was fifth at Colonial in late May, more than three months ago. Those finishing four birdies at Wales happened a long time ago.
Hunter Mahan: He was a lock in the first half of the season when he won the Accenture Match Play in Tucson and the Shell Houston Open, but his form has recently gone south. After finishing eighth at the AT&T National, Mahan was 48th in Canada, 55th in Akron, missed the cut at the PGA Championship (where he put up an 80!), missed the cut again at Barclays and then shot a mere three under par at the birdie-fest known as the Deutsche Bank Championship. Love simply couldn’t afford to ignore Mahan’s play.
Nick Watney: Though he’s considered to have tons of potential, Watney really hadn’t played himself into contention all year until he won the Barclays. He’s a gamer, though, but he’s also a very inconsistent putter. He looks terrific at times, like when he won at Doral in 2011, and can also look lost. He doesn’t rank among the top 100 in the putting stats this year — he’s 101st.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Nick Watney had won twice in 2012. He's won once.