Tiger vs. the unknown in battle for Ryder Cup bid


AKRON, Ohio – If Tiger Woods winds up getting selected as a captain’s pick for this year’s Ryder Cup team – and yes, it’s still a big if – he might have clinched his spot with a second-place finish at the John Deere Classic three weeks ago.

Considering he didn’t play that event, you’re forgiven for giving that sentence a double-take. But bear with me here.

The second-place finish wasn’t Woods’ own; it belonged to Zach Johnson. Based on that result, Johnson moved past Patrick Reed and into the ninth and final automatic qualifying spot for the United States roster.

With two events remaining before those nine spots are solidified – this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and next week’s PGA Championship, which carries double points – there can still be plenty of turnover. However, if – yes, another big if – the automatic qualifiers remain the same, it just might have created a position for Woods on the team.

It all comes down to Tom Watson’s three potential wildcard selections.

Current U.S. Ryder Cup standings

As I’ve stated for a few months now, it’s hard to imagine Watson overlooking Phil Mickelson for a 10th career team. The failures of his season thus far have been overstated. No, he hasn’t won yet, but he’s hardly been terrible. His experience and name-recognition alone should help him get on this team.

I also think Keegan Bradley has played well enough – and proven to Watson how much the event means to him – that he’s worthy of a captain’s pick, even if he doesn’t seriously contend these next two weeks. He was among the team’s best players at Medinah two years ago and on a recent scouting mission to Gleneagles, the captain raved about how the course suits his game.

That leaves one final spot on the 12-man roster.

If Johnson needs that spot – hey, another big if – it’s completely fathomable that Watson would choose him over Woods. With a win, a second, a third and five other top-25 finishes to go along with a lengthy international team resume, Johnson is deserving of being on the team. Take him over Tiger, and the captain wouldn’t get much of an argument from anyone who’s been paying attention.

With Johnson currently inside that top-nine, though, it leaves an amalgam of up-and-comers and unproven talents as potential picks alongside Woods.

Reed has cooled off after a hot start. Same goes for Chris Kirk. Brendon Todd has enjoyed a torrid two-month stretch, but like Reed and Kirk, he’s never played under anything close to a Ryder Cup spotlight. Webb Simpson and Ryan Moore are more experienced players and don’t quite fit that narrative, though their possible inclusion still leads to a question that Watson needs to be asking himself right now:

“Do I want to go into battle with a 14-time major champion still trying to find his game or a more unknown commodity?”

If that question could be answered with Johnson instead taking that third and final captain’s selection, it’s very possible that Watson could overlook Woods for the team. When it comes down to him or one of those aforementioned contenders, though, it’s difficult to see him bypassing that known commodity.

But, of course, with two weeks left for players to still qualify, all of this remains a big if for now.