Decision time for Ryder Cup captain Love III

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Every Ryder Cup team photo looks a bit blurry in early August, and with four tournaments left before Davis Love III adds his four captain’s picks to the group of eight U.S. qualifiers, all eyes are on the bubble. Which, in this case, looks like it was produced by several pieces of gum.

Phil Mickelson is currently clinging to that precious eighth spot. Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk and Rickie Fowler are the four names immediately behind him. Dustin Johnson currently sits 14th in the standings. No skipper has ever made his selections without telling us how difficult it was, but DL3 is facing an unusually complex scenario.

Mahan and Fowler are climbing stars with Ryder Cup experience. Stricker and Furyk are two of the best putters in the game, both of whom can claim successful partnerships with Tiger Woods. There are a ton of points still to be earned, but the top six guys on the list are a proverbial lock, and three of them are Ryder Cup rookies.

Such a lack of veteran quality at the top is, shall we say, very rare. It forces Love to prioritize experience to an even greater degree, which makes it hard to imagine the Yanks facing the Europeans without Mickelson, Stricker and/or Furyk on the squad.

That said, all three of those guys have a distinct downside. Mickelson hasn’t played well for months. Stricker won the season-opener in Maui but has had a very quiet year since, although he did finish T-2 last week at Firestone. And Furyk’s recent inability to close out big tournaments contradicts what has long been his greatest asset: consistent performance at the highest level with the game on the line.

Decisions, decisions. Love gets four of them, thanks to 2008 captain Paul Azinger, whose insistence on altering the qualifying and selection procedures have measurably improved the U.S. cause. If nothing changes in the standings between now and Sept. 3, one could easily see DL3 playing it safe and taking the four players right behind Mickelson.

No one could rightfully gripe about adding Mahan, Stricker, Furyk and Fowler to the roster. This would leave out Johnson, who was out for three months this spring but vaulted back into the picture with a victory two months ago in Memphis. Johnson certainly isn’t playing any better than the other four right now, however, and his 2-6-1 Ryder/Presidents Cup record won’t do him any favors when Love sits down to analyze his options.

So there is the lay of the land if nothing changes, but it most likely will. Johnson could win again, leap into the top eight and knock out Mickelson, who would get one of Love’s picks no matter what happens. One thing is for sure: Philly Mick will be at Medinah the last week of September. These dry spells are nothing new, and besides, Lefty brings the type of vocal, hands-on leadership Love knows is ultra-valuable in the team room.

From there, you’d have to think Furyk would be next on the priority list of captain’s picks. No question, those late lapses at Olympic and Firestone are disconcerting, but Furyk’s dependability over an extended period of time (he’s 4-1-2 in Ryder Cup singles) and knack for at least getting into the hunt at big events are stronger positives than those around him in the standings.

Fowler? He picked up his first career win in Charlotte, then finished T-2 at the Players and T-5 at Colonial, but since firing a ghastly 84 while paired with Woods in the final round at the Memorial, he hasn’t been the same player. Mahan? Two early wins, which got him all the way to fourth in the World Ranking, but just one top 10 in 11 starts since (a T-8 at the AT&T National).

When all is said and done, Love might find himself anguishing over three candidates – Mahan, Stricker and Fowler – for two picks. At some point this week, DL3 will tell all three of those guys to play their way in, which won’t make his job any easier. It’s the hardest part of being a Ryder Cup captain. The only hard part, actually.