NORTON, Mass – Not that the powers at the PGA of America would ever admit to it, but the race for the final three spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team is down to a 72-hole qualifier, known in these parts as the Deutsche Bank Championship.
While it is patently unfair to designate the previous 46 events used in the qualifying process afterthoughts, that logic really doesn’t matter to the half-dozen or so hopefuls who will set out on Friday at TPC Boston looking to make one last impression on U.S. captain Tom Watson before he announces his three picks on Tuesday evening in New York City.
Captains used to make their picks following the PGA Championship when automatic qualifying ended. But thanks to Paul Azinger’s nip/tuck of the U.S. Ryder Cup selection process in 2008, the additional time to make selections is more for the players than it is for any captain.
In short, these last two weeks are professional golf’s version of a working interview and Watson has made it clear the pressure, at least right now, is squarely on the players.
“I’ve laid down the gauntlet for those who want to be on the team; play well and I will give you a look. Don’t play well and I won’t,” Watson wrote in a recent captain’s blog.
Of course, following Monday’s final round the pressure will land squarely on Watson’s shoulders. Before then it’s up to the would-be heroes to make a statement, and last week Hunter Mahan spoke the loudest.
The window Watson will use to make his picks likely stretches back a few weeks, giving the captain a competitive snapshot in his search for the hottest hand, and before his victory at The Barclays, Mahan – who finished 25th on the U.S. point list but according to current projections would have moved to 15th after last week’s win – had been trending in all the right ways.
After missing the cut at the RBC Canadian Open, Mahan finished tied for 15th at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and seventh at the PGA Championship.
Proving the adage that you can only want something so much, Mahan long ago embraced the long view when it came to his Ryder Cup chances, telling your scribe at the PGA, “I can’t do any more. You have to want it the right amount. You can’t over try. You have to keep working and trusting in what you are doing each day.”
Keegan Bradley, who was 13th on the point list, would also appear to be high on Watson’s radar, but his play in recent weeks (missed cut at the PGA and T-53 at The Barclays) may hurt his chances. Working in Bradley’s favor, however, is his undefeated record in team play paired with Phil Mickelson in 2012 at Medinah and a fiery demeanor.
Brandt Snedeker, 20th on the point list, also seems to have preferred player status, and a long relationship with Watson, and has played consistently during this audition period, finishing tied for 12th at the Bridgestone, 13th at the PGA and fifth at the Wyndham Championship before missing the cut at The Barclays.
After a scorching summer, Brendon Todd (No. 12 in points) has faded in the run up to the final cut. He’s not posted a finish better than 45th (Bridgestone Invitational) in his last four starts, and likely needs a big week in Boston to have any chance.
“My goal is to have a good FedEx Cup and if I were to have a win or a top-3 (finish) maybe I would be looked at as a captain’s pick. I don’t think he’s going to pick very many rookies,” Todd said.
The same could be said for Ryan Moore, who finished 11th on the U.S. point list and has one top-10 finish (Bridgestone Invitational) in his last four starts, Chris Kirk (No. 14), Ryan Palmer (No. 18) and Harris English (No. 16), who would all be rookies on this year’s team.
Jason Dufner (No. 10) hasn’t played since the PGA Championship when he withdrew with a neck injury and isn’t in the field this week at TPC Boston.
The two wild cards heading into the final 72 holes would be Webb Simpson and Kevin Na, Nos. 15 and 17 on the final points list, respectively.
Simpson played on the 2012 Ryder Cup team and sandwiched a tie for fifth place at the Wyndham Championship between two missed cuts, but has history at the Deutsche Bank Championship (he won the event in 2011) and the added bonus of having paired well with Bubba Watson in both the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.
While Na, who made a late-season push in an attempt to earn a spot at this year’s matches in Scotland, is finally healthy and he tied for ninth place last week at The Barclays. A good week at TPC Boston could make Na the surprise selection on Tuesday night.
Or at least give Captain America something to think about. Until then it will be the collection of potential picks that will be doing all the thinking.