Ryder qualifying looming large over U.S. hopefuls

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AKRON, Ohio – Anyone who has witnessed Keegan Bradley’s stutter-step approach to his ball or constant club-twirling while standing over it understands that he’s quirky and eccentric and …

“I’m a really weird guy,” he stated matter-of-factly on Thursday. “I do a lot of weird stuff.”

One such example came after the last Ryder Cup. Despondent following the United States’ loss, Bradley arrived at his South Florida home and left his team-issued travel bag completely intact. Didn’t touch a zipper, didn’t empty a single pocket.

Nearly two years later, he still hasn’t opened it.

“I’m not even 100 percent sure what’s in there,” he said. “It’s sitting in my house. I just saw it before I left. For a split-second, I thought about opening it. Get a little motivation just to see what was in there.”

Like others who are currently on the bubble for automatic qualifying to this year’s roster, Bradley doesn’t need much motivation.

This week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and next week’s PGA Championship offer opportunities to climb inside the top nine on the points list and – to use a cliché – control your own destiny, rather than remain beholden to captain Tom Watson for a potential wild-card selection. Dustin Johnson was No. 5 on the U.S. points list, but Johnson announced Thursday that he is taking leave of absence "to seek professional help for personal challenges," one that will keep him out of the Ryder Cup. His absence opens up one more spot for guys fighting to make the team.

“It’s brutal,” admits Bradley, currently 16th in the standings. “It’s stuff you don’t think about when you’re younger, grinding it out for spots on Ryder Cup teams. You think about having fun out here. That’s not very much fun.

Therein lies a problem, though. Every player within shouting distance of making the team has those thoughts in the forefront of his mind – and every one of ‘em maintains that he’s trying his best not to think about it.

“It's about the farthest thing from my mind,” Ryan Moore, 14th on the points list, said after an opening-round 5-under 65 at Firestone. “It's just simply, I've got two chances to go play good and hope I can get it done.”

“It's one of those things where you have to take care of yourself,” explained Patrick Reed, another bubble boy who opened with a 67. “If so, then everything will fall into place.”

That’s the goal, at least – and with double points available at Valhalla next week, the qualifying process is far from a done deal.

“I’m so far out of it that I’ve got to play spectacular golf the next few weeks,” said Brandt Snedeker, who shot 68 on Thursday. “I’m playing better golf now than I have all year. I know I’m hitting it really good. I’m excited about that. I have no doubt in my mind I can win one of these next two tournaments and put myself right in the mix.”

Most players also understand, though, that with a few notable superstars – namely, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – currently on the outside looking in, the chance of securing one of the three captain’s picks is even less than in years past.

“Every year there’s a couple of guys who seem like they’re locks for captain’s picks,” Snedeker continued. “I would find it hard to see a Ryder Cup team without those two guys on it. I think there’s one spot that’s available and I think that’s how everyone views it.”

Neither of them are taking anything for granted, though.

Woods has repeatedly stated some form of his longtime mantra: “Winning takes care of everything." Mickelson has been echoing those sentiments, as well.

“It's been a really good streak that I've had going,” the lefthander said after a first-round 1-over 71. “I have not had to rely on a captain's selection in two decades and I'd like to keep that going. I definitely want to be in Scotland, a country that I've played some good golf in the last few years and I always enjoy going back to. So it would be nice and beneficial, I think, if I were able to play my way on the team by myself. And I feel like I'm starting to play well enough to do it now.”

From those firmly on the bubble to those who need to make a major move in the standings, every potential U.S. team member is thinking about the Ryder Cup without actually trying to think about over these next two weeks.

That’s a difficult conundrum, one that might even flummox the best mental gurus.

There’s not much else these players can do, though, other than block it from their minds and post some low numbers over the next two weeks.

At least one players has a little extra motivation, too.

“I want to play on that Ryder Cup team,” Bradley said. “If good stuff happens, I’ll open that bag.”