Hawk's Nest: Rory, Ryder Cup in playoff spotlight


PARAMUS, N.J. – For a state that gets picked on pretty often, New Jersey sure does have a lot of great golf courses, and Ridgewood CC is one of them. A classy A.W. Tillinghast design with a terrific medley of holes and plenty of elevation change, Ridgewood is something of a rarity in today’s game: an old-school gem still capable of challenging the world’s best players.

That said, close to half the field shot under par Thursday in the opening round of the 2014 FedEx Cup playoffs. One of those 55 men was not Rory McIlroy, who respectfully let Tiger Woods do most of the talking during their joint appearance on “The Tonight Show” last Monday.

Tiger clearly was in a buoyant mood while hanging with host Jimmy Fallon, hamming it up a bit and even making fun of his recent shoddy play. We don’t get that kind of stuff in the media center. If Red Shirt announces one more time that he’s “close” and just needs to get his power back, I’m gonna call the electric company and pay his delinquent bill myself.

McIl-rebound, of course, has done his career no harm since ditching his fiancee back in May, although he did struggle to beat Fallon in a little test of shot-making accuracy the other night. Keep in mind that he’s been kicking back since winning the PGA Championship, doing cool stuff like hanging out with his boy Harry from the boy band “One Direction.”

Once you’ve fired the girlfriend, a man can do sillier things than find a pal who has 18,000 screaming lasses in his grill every time he picks up a microphone. So Thursday at Ridgewood, it made perfect sense that McIlroy’s tee ball was seen heading in One Direction:

Right of the fairway.

“We don’t play many courses where you have to drive the ball straight,” veteran caddie John Wood told me after his boss, Hunter Mahan, posted a 66. “Here, you have no chance if you’re playing from the rough.”

A CHANCE. THAT’S all a bunch of U.S. players are hoping to accomplish over the next 10 days: a realistic opportunity to earn one of Tom Watson’s three Ryder Cup captain’s picks. After talking to a half-dozen or so knowledgeable people at Ridgewood, you get an even greater sense of how difficult Watson’s task is.

Regardless of whom he selects, this U.S. squad is vastly inferior to the Europeans, at least on paper, which makes compatible partnerships even more important than usual—and Keegan Bradley a virtual lock to receive a bid.

Bradley’s performance alongside Phil Mickelson in 2012 was a lasting highlight from a week that ended with an infamous U.S. collapse. The pair won their first three matches in routs, and when the Yanks blew a four-point lead in singles, skipper Davis Love III was roundly criticized for having rested the Mickelson-Bradley combo the previous afternoon.

Besides, Bradley has had a very solid year despite not winning: 12 top-25 finishes in 23 starts, four of them top-fives, including Bay Hill, the U.S. Open and Firestone. When you look at the other options, Bradley’s case only gets stronger, which is another way of saying the other two picks are pure guesswork.

One guy who hasn’t gotten much notice is Mahan. He has an exceptional match-play history and has played on six Ryder/Presidents Cup teams, compiling a 13-9-4 record. His flubbed chip late on the 17th hole in his singles match against Graeme McDowell made him a target of blame in the 2010 loss – an unfair charge if ever there was one.

This squad isn’t good enough to leave behind a guy who has won 15 points in 26 matches over the years. As much as some people love Brandt Snedeker, another top American having an off-year, he can’t touch Mahan in terms of experience and performance.

“You know what it’s like to face an opponent who hits every fairway, like Hunter does?” Wood says. “It can get pretty demoralizing. He’s never out of a hole.”

THEN THERE IS the curious case of Jason Dufner, who led many to believe he might be done for the year after a neck problem forced him to withdraw from the PGA Championship. The injury basically cost Dufner an automatic spot—he fell to 10th in the final week of qualifying.

“As of now, he’s in the field next week,” his agent, Ben Walter, told me Thursday.

You may recall Dufner’s frustration after walking off at Valhalla. When asked by TNT about the seriousness of the neck issue and when he might return, Duf quipped, “It may be next week, it may be next month, it may be next year, it may be never.”

It wasn’t exactly the most encouraging self-prognosis ever, but a couple of weeks have passed, and it appears Dufner won’t have to retire after all. As well as so many Americans played during the first two days at Medinah, few, if any, were better than Dufner, a ball-striking machine who can make life very easy for a partner in the alternate-shot format.

“If he’s healthy, he’ll play [at Deutsche Bank].” Walter added. “If he’s not healthy, he won’t play just to try and grab a spot on the team.”

And if I’m Captain Watson, I think long and hard about making Dufner my third and final pick. You can talk all you want about how Ryder Cup experience can become a negative, how the U.S. could use some new blood on its side, but I’ll take my chances on guys who have been there before.