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Players starting to focus on Ryder Cup

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IRVING, Texas — The Ryder Cup is still 20 weeks away, but with the Players Championship in the rear-view mirror and the heart of the season upon us, we’ve reached the point where playing for no paycheck becomes more important than a lot of the tournaments that give out humongous ones.

“It’s very high on my radar,” Jordan Spieth says of the biennial matches against Europe, which has beaten the U.S. seven times in the last nine meetings. “It’s a huge priority of mine to make that team. I know I’m in a good position now, but with quite a few events weighted heavily going forward, it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”

Not yet, anyway. That T-4 at the Players moved Spieth to fourth in the U.S. standings. He’s one spot ahead of Jim Furyk, who significantly enhanced his chances of playing in a ninth Ryder Cup with a solo second at TPC Sawgrass. Furyk has been making these teams for a long time. He may be getting old, but playing for Old Glory never does.

“Honestly, I didn’t look at it this year until a couple of weeks ago,” Furyk says. “I knew I was in decent shape at the start of the year, played well in Charlotte and jumped to seventh. Then I had a nice week at the Players and jumped to fifth.”

Ask a Tour pro where he stands in the FedEx Cup derby, and there’s a pretty good chance he’s not exactly sure. Ask him where he stands in Ryder Cup qualifying, however, and he’s likely to already have plumb-bobbed it twice. What’s interesting is how the current generation of Yanks doesn’t have to listen to people wondering aloud about whether they care about beating the Euros.

In the modern era, it has always mattered. And it always will.

Nobody cares more than Keegan Bradley, currently 20th on the list, meaning he needs to get busy. “I really think I’ve got to win to make the team,” Bradley says. “We’re so deep and it’s so tough - and we’ll probably have Tiger [Woods] on the outside [of the nine automatic qualifiers]. So many guys are deserving of captain’s picks. I’ve got to make the team on points. That’s very important to me.”

A couple of administrative matters are worth repeating. In an attempt to strengthen the U.S. squad, victorious skipper Paul Azinger successfully lobbied for changes to the qualifying process in 2007. American players now earn points only at the majors during non-Ryder Cup years.

The pace picks up considerably when the new calendar arrives. A point is awarded for every $1,000 earned at all “regular” Tour events in 2014. The reward is doubled at the majors and cut in half at opposite-field events, which forces guys to play well in the months leading up to the matches to make the squad.

Also, current captain Tom Watson reduced the number of his picks from four to three. “Three feels right,” Furyk says. “Two wasn’t enough, and four - that’s one-third of the team being made up of [non-qualifiers], which sounds a little high to me.”

Furyk knows all about changes to the system. He had a huge 2003, then hurt his wrist and had one of the poorest seasons of his career in 2004. Despite missing five months with the injury and posting just two top 10s in nine ’04 starts prior to the Ryder Cup, he finished fourth in the U.S. standings.

“I’ve seen it both ways, [but] I’ve never really concerned myself with the process,” Furyk says. “If you’re asking me whether I like the system we have now, I’d say yes.”

If anyone’s complaining, nobody’s listening. “I’ve got to dig in,” Spieth says. “I know Bubba [Watson] is pretty much secure. Everyone else has to play great golf. Even guys who have won three times this year. That’s why I’m putting so much emphasis on the majors - because they’re weighted so heavily.”

The Woods situation, meanwhile, will remain a factor all summer. Tiger’s back issues are likely to keep him out of action for another two months. Unless he returns and plays at a level far below his standard, you would think Watson would add him to the team, regardless of how the naysayers feel about it.

In effect, that would leave Watson with two picks. There was a similar scenario with Woods and the 2011 Presidents Cup: he was injured for most of the summer but was added to the team by skipper Fred Couples despite finishing 29th in points and 50th in the world ranking.

Woods would go 2-3 at Royal Melbourne. In 2011, then again earlier this season, his play prior to the injury wasn’t close to Tigeresque. Watson has always been known as an independent thinker and a risk-taker, leaving us to wonder which is the bigger gamble: taking Woods to Gleneagles or leaving him behind.

Given the Azinger changes - and how the PGA Tour schedule has gotten bottom-heavy since 2007 - you get a pretty good idea of who’s Ryder Cup-worthy and who isn’t. If America doesn’t pick up its first victory overseas since 1993, it won’t be because the Yanks don’t care. Or because Watson didn’t field his best team.

Or because guys such as Bradley didn’t have a chance to make it.

“It’s always a priority,” Dustin Johnson says. “I mean, I don’t even know where I’m at, but I think I’m doing pretty well, to be honest.”

Having fallen from fourth to sixth after the Players, Johnson needs to pick it up again, to be perfectly honest.