There are still 42 days before Tom Watson finds himself officially on the clock, a theoretical eternity considering the heavily weighted schedule between now and the moment Captain American must announce his three picks for this year’s Ryder Cup.
Yet as Watson deferred the inevitable as the questions mounted on Sunday at the Open Championship, there was no mistaking the reality that Tiger Woods was running out of time in his pursuit of a spot on Old Tom’s team.
Woods said all the right things on Sunday at Hoylake, where he finished 69th following rounds of 69-77-73-75.
“The fact I was able to play a few weeks ahead of time, and I'm only getting stronger and faster, which is great. I just had to get more game time,” said Woods, who returned from the DL last month following back surgery on March 31. “We did the smart thing by not playing too much leading into this event, just want to assess how my back was.”
By all accounts, Woods’ back is fine. It’s the silver lining behind a comeback that started four weeks earlier than expected. His game, and by association his Ryder Cup chances, are still to be determined.
While Woods has taken a measured approach in his return to action, Watson has not deviated from his initial take on the former world No. 1.
“If he’s playing well and in good health, I'll pick him,” he has told anyone who would listen. On Sunday at the Open Championship, where the captain clipped the potential pick by five strokes, he added an addendum to that company line.
“The caveat to that is if he doesn't get into the FedEx Cup (playoffs), what do I do then? That's not here yet,” Watson allowed.
Although the clock says 42 days, in essence Woods has just two weeks to make his case – next week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship.
While the top 8 on the U.S. points list may be the ultimate goal, Woods’ immediate concerns are focused on another points list. At 214th on the FedEx Cup points list, Woods’ first order of business is to crack the playoff roster.
The most direct path would be through the winner’s circle. “I'd like to win the next two tournaments I'm in. That should take care of that,” Woods said when asked about his Ryder Cup and FedEx Cup predicament.
Short of that, to convince Watson he is deserving of one of his three picks he will likely have to, at a minimum, play his way into The Barclays, the first playoff event.
It was telling that on Sunday at Hoylake the captain and the potential pick were sending out something of a mixed message. When asked if he would make himself a pick Woods was unapologetically positive.
“I got picked by Corey (Pavin) back in (2010),” Woods said. “I was coming off an injury as well there with my Achilles, and I sat out for most of the summer.
“I felt like I was able to contribute to the team. And that's all you want as a pick, you want someone who can contribute to the team, whether it's in support or it's in play. I did it then and hopefully I can actually earn my way on to this team.”
Of course, in 2010 when Pavin made Woods a pick he was 12th on the U.S. points list and had finished fourth at the U.S. Open and in the top 15 in his final two events before the announcement was made.
Woods – who went 3-1-0 at Celtic Manor in ’10 – didn’t play the U.S. Open this year and in just five events his best finish is a tie for 25th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
All of which might explain why Watson had a slightly different take on Woods’ short-term Ryder Cup prospects based on his week in England.
“Looks like he's playing without pain,” Watson said. “But, again, he's not in the mix. He needed to get in the mix to get some points to get some money and get in the FedEx Cup.”
When Woods made his debut at his Quicken Loans National in late June following back surgery he jokingly told reporters his expectations for the week were simply to, “get in the playoffs somehow.”
At the time, the assembled scribes dismissed Woods’ self-deprecating take. Little did anyone know that his Ryder Cup chances would come down to that other points list.