The U.S. Ryder Cup picture seems clearer than ever, but it’s not that simple

August 29, 2018

Bryson DeChambeau entered Sunday at The Northern Trust in a precarious position in the Ryder Cup picture. Had he blown a four-shot lead that afternoon at Ridgewood, just weeks after a British Open driving range meltdown and a Sunday implosion at the Porsche European Open, it would have raised major red flags. Instead he threw down statement birdies at the first two holes, building an insurmountable lead en route to a resounding victory that seemingly cemented his trip to Paris next month.

There were Ryder Cup storylines aplenty in New Jersey. Some — Keegan Bradley running the playoff table?! — fell flat. Brandt Snedeker was a trendy pick for about two days before he withdrew with back spasms. But DeChambeau knew he had to deliver — “I’m a man on a mission,” he declared entering the day — and did.

Tony Finau knew he had to bring it, too. “For sure,” he said, when asked if he had Ryder Cup implications in mind. “It’s a cool position to be in to just know that maybe you’re one of a few guys that he’s looking at.” He delivered, too, posting a Sunday 68 to finish solo second.

Two of the players with the best chance to play their way onto the team seemed to have done just that. So with the first three captain’s picks less than a week away, do we know the U.S. Ryder Cup squad? Let’s break it down.

 

Are we sure they’re in?

Tiger Woods — Yes, we’re sure. There was some putting weirdness in a T40 this weekend, but five or six lip-outs and a handful more edge-burners on Sunday suggested that this is not, as Brandel Chamblee suggested, something permanent. If his name were Brian Harman, he’d still probably be picked for the squad. The fact that he’s arguably the greatest of all time is a heck of a tiebreaker. “Yeah, I want to be picked,” he said. “I want to be part of the team.” He will be.

Phil Mickelson — Mickelson seems to be busy these days, wearing many hats: Shirt salesman. Dancer. Social media icon. Fight promoter. He re-donned his Worthy Ryder Cupper cap the first three days in Jersey, working his way to T7 and the edge of contention before a Sunday stall-out. But he was always going to get the benefit of the doubt, and the fact that he worked his way to 10th on the points list speaks for itself. “I’m going to play really well these next two weeks and I’m going to make it an easy decision,” Mickelson said. Confidence doesn’t seem to be an issue — the guy said he “drove it like a stallion,” after all — and that’s what makes Mickelson who he is. Note: “Gaucher” means “Lefty” in French. He’s in.

Bryson DeChambeau — He was the first man out of auto-qualifying, which gives him a leg up on the competition. He couldn’t have possibly had a better week at Ridgewood. And he’s all sorts of fired up about being part of the team. The best thing about DeChambeau’s win is that it locked in his spot as the third (not fourth) captain’s pick. There’s not much that could happen at this point that would keep Furyk’s Tuesday announcement from looking like Woods-Mickelson-DeChambeau. That’s great news for the 24-year-old Proud American, who loves the Ryder Cup so much that he attended in 2016 as a fan! Not much could happen in a single week that would allow someone to build a resume as compelling as the new world No. 12.

Tony Finau — We’re sure…right? Top 10 in every major? Second place this week? Ten birdies in front of captain Furyk at Bellerive? Finau played it cool post-round, but has to be feeling good about his position. “If I’m in the conversation, this doesn’t hurt my chances, I don’t believe,” he said on Sunday in New Jersey. He must be in. Unless…

 

What about these guys?

Plenty could still happen between now and decision time post-BMW — that’s the whole point of the final pick (which will be made at 9 a.m. on Sept. 10). Finau may hold the current inside track, but he’ll be taking friendly fire from his American comrades for two weeks rather than one. Unless he wins in Boston, he’s no lock. In reverse order, his most dangerous challengers remain:

5. The ghost of Billy Horschel — Remember when Horschel tore through the 2014 playoffs, with two wins and a runner-up, quadrupling his career earnings in the process? He may have been a useful member of that Ryder Cup squad (and could have stolen a pick from Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson or Hunter Mahan, who went a combined 2-5-2 in the loss). Horschel’s run was largely responsible for our current system. What if someone from off the board rips off two wins in a row? Kevin Na declared his intentions at the beginning of the week.

“If I can somehow get my name on one of those lists of players that play the Ryder Cup,” he mused. He played well in a T15 finish, but knows he’ll need more to force his way in. Plenty of others on the fringe could do the same: Kyle Stanley, Kevin Kisner, Gary Woodland. How about Horschel himself, for that matter (he finished T3 on Sunday)? It’s unlikely but distinctly possible.

Furyk Tiger
Jim Furyk has some decisions to make.
Getty Images

4. Zach Johnson — With his team experience, ZJ is a logical fit for the squad, and he’s been undeniably steady of late: six top 20s in a row before last week. But he’s had just a single top-five in the last year (yeah, a full year) and is way down on the qualifying points list. That means it would take a lot to justify his inclusion at this point. Word is he’d more likely join the squad in France as an assistant captain.

3. Patrick Cantlay — Cantlay remains an under-the-radar talent despite his rise to No. 23 in the world (ahead of both Woods and Mickelson), which includes three top-eights in his last seven starts. It’s not that he’s currently in the running (he’s not) but Cantlay seems like the best candidate to bust his way into the conversation with a win and another top 10 the next two weeks. Just don’t ask him for a compelling quote on the subject. “Not really worried about it,” he said on Sunday. “I’m just worried about trying to play as well as I can this week and I think that’s the key. Take every week as an individual week, do your best to win, and if you win a couple times, that’s all there is to it.” Dry as hell, but he’s not wrong.

2. Matt Kuchar — A couple months ago, you’d have said Kuchar was a lock to make this team. Established veteran, steadying presence, popular in the locker room. But his form of late has been suspect — four MCs in his last seven starts — and Furyk would be grasping for straws to pick him. Still, a couple top-fives could give U.S. leadership an excuse to see things differently, which may be just what they need.

1. Xander Schauffele — Last year’s rookie of the year had an unfortunate finish to The Northern Trust when he missed a six-foot par putt at his 18th hole on Friday, missing the cut by a single shot. When that happened, he seemed to get completely forgotten. Like, completely. After Bryson, Phil and Tiger, he was next man up on the points list! He’s the potential future of the American side! Top 20 in the world! Not to mention his runner-up finish at the British Open, T6 at the U.S. Open, T2 at the Players and more. It wasn’t until this week that Finau leapt him in the World Ranking, after all. There’s not much daylight between the two. The soft-spoken Californian has the most to gain from a couple of big weeks in the Northeast and should be on everyone’s radar.

 

The dark, unlikely possibilities

Let’s not wander too far down this particular rabbithole, but consider this: Rickie Fowler will now have missed two weeks in a row with a tear in his right oblique. Look, he’s not going to miss the Ryder Cup. The guy got the Olympic rings tattooed on his arm, after all — he’s a big fan of representing his country. But what if he did? Meanwhile, I’m not even going to mention the possibility of something happening to another captain’s pick who is playing several weeks in a row on a surgically-repaired back. That would be ridiculous conjecture.

But the point remains this: in the land beyond Finau, there is a wide open space, waiting to be filled with two weeks of highly-scrutinized competition. It’s sure to add a layer of intrigue as the playoffs roll on.