The golf landscape has been littered with more grassy knolls of late than Dallas’ Dealey Plaza.
First it was Ballotgate and the PGA Tour’s curious decision to delay the release of the Player of the Year vote until after this week’s WGC-HSBC Champions, and now it seems the conspiracy theorists have started to dissect Tuesday’s announcement that John Cook would replace Michael Jordan as an assistant captain at this month’s Presidents Cup.
On its surface, the decision to have Cook step in for MJ quacks and swims like a duck. Jordan, the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, said the decision to step down as official walkie-talkie carrier was based on the ongoing NBA lockout.
“With the NBA labor situation unsettled, I feel it is necessary that I remain in the country,” Jordan said.
And Cook seems an obvious enough choice to join Jay Haas as an assistant at Royal Melbourne. The 11-time Tour winner never participated in a Presidents Cup, but he played in one Ryder Cup (1993) and is almost a contemporary to the veteran members of the U.S. team.
Some sources, however, have suggested the move is more convoluted than that. When U.S. captain Fred Couples announced Tiger Woods and Bill Haas as his wild-card picks last month he also noted that Keegan Bradley would be the first player off the bench if Steve Stricker, who has been slowed by a neck ailment, can’t play.
Stricker has been at home in Wisconsin since The Tour Championship resting and undergoing intense therapy for a herniated disk in his neck, but in an interview last week with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he did not sound like a man convinced he would be on the first tee Nov. 17.
“My left arm feels a little bit different than my right. Opening a jar at home or whatever, I don't feel like I have the finger strength,” said Stricker, although he also added, “My arm would have to be falling off for me not to play.”
Despite those comments Bradley’s camp has indicated he will not make the trip to Australia unless he is “invited,” a fact that led some to believe that Tuesday’s move to bring Cook Down Under was Couples’ Plan B.
As recently as 2006 Cook played a full Tour schedule, he finished in third place at this year’s Mayakoba Golf Classic and, perhaps more importantly, maintains a good relationship with Woods.
If for some reason Stricker – who teamed with Woods in 2009 to lead the U.S. side with a perfect 4-0 record – can’t play, having Cook come out of the bullpen could be a viable option for Couples.
According to the captain’s agreement for the matches, “in the event of illness, injury or any Other emergency, a team member may be replaced prior to 6 p.m. local time, Wednesday of tournament week. The captain will have the ability to select any eligible player to replace a player who has withdrawn, regardless of his standing on the respective point or money list used to determine eligibility.”
Lost in this contingency plan is Bradley, a Tour rookie who won twice this year and is the only American to claim a major in 2011. Why wasn’t the PGA champion offered a spot in Couples’ team room? Sergio Garcia served as an assistant to Colin Montgomerie at last year’s Ryder Cup and European captain Nick Faldo tabbed then-up-and-coming star Martin Kaymer for a special “assistant” role during the 2008 matches.
Garcia spent the week in Wales as a glorified cheerleader, but used the experience to emerge from a prolonged slump and is now clearly in the picture to make next year’s team; while Kaymer went on to become world No. 1 and played a key role for the European team in 2010.
“You’re taking a risk keeping Keegan Bradley out,” Faldo told GolfChannel.com on Wednesday. “You win a major, that’s disappointing when you’re a young rookie, and you’re that good, and you can’t make the team. I would be a little miffed at that one.”
Knowing Stricker this issue will likely become a non-story by the time the matches begin. If he can swing the club he will join Woods on the first tee at Royal Melbourne. Nor can one fault Cook for answering the call; as an assistant or middle reliever he will be a valuable asset to the U.S. side.
But if there’s a chance, however slim, that Stricker can’t play it seems Couples misplayed his hand. This wouldn’t be a conspiracy, just a missed opportunity.