Punch Shot: U.S. Ryder Cup wildcard questions

By Golf Channel DigitalAugust 30, 2016, 6:00 pm

The European Ryder Cup team has been finalized. The U.S. squad won't be completed for another four weeks. Captain Davis Love III will make three picks on Sept. 12, after two more FedEx Cup Playoff events, and then a final selection on Sept. 25, following the Tour Championship. Our writers size up some possible U.S. wildcards:

Who is a stone-cold lock to earn a captain's pick?

Ryan Lavner: Rickie Fowler. There are at least enough positive signs to justify the selection – he won against a stout field in Abu Dhabi, he had three good opportunities here in the States and, frankly, there aren’t many better options – and he’s also shown tremendous enthusiasm for the event, even adding the Wyndham for the first time in a desperate attempt to qualify on his own. He’s never won a Ryder Cup match (0-3-5), but he can partner with multiple players already on the squad.

Randall Mell: Matt Kuchar. Davis Love III said: “If somebody is playing well, they aren’t going to get left out.” Kuchar has logged three top-10s since July 1, two of them third-place finishes, including that bronze medal Olympic performance under the American flag. That’s more top-10s this summer than Bubba Watson or Rickie Fowler. Kuchar hasn’t won this year, but five times he has finished fourth or better. Kuchar’s performances have been more steady, consistent and dependable than any other American in this Ryder Cup mix.

Rex Hoggard: Fowler. Although he hasn’t had his best season, he showed flashes of the fire the U.S. will need with a tie for seventh place last week at The Barclays and, if the picks will truly be a collective choice, he would be a locker room favorite.

Will Gray: Fowler. He was believed to have an inside track even before last week’s event, but he showed plenty to Davis Love III for about 68 holes at The Barclays to push his chances from “likely” to something more definitive. While his stumble down the stretch cost him the eighth and final automatic spot, Fowler is a popular guy in the team room, a potential catalyst for the frenzied home crowds and, let’s face it, still the eighth-ranked player in the world. While the battle for the final spot between him and Zach Johnson was an entertaining storyline, it was probably a moot point.

Who is under the most pressure to prove himself?

Lavner: Bubba Watson. How many top-10s on Tour has Bubba had in the past six months? A big, fat zero. Though he seems like an obvious wildcard pick because of his world ranking (No. 7) and length off the tee, he’s driving it all over the map, his short game this season has been abysmal (outside the top 110 in both strokes gained-around the green and -putting) and he poses partnership issues because of his style of play. Throw in a 3-8 career mark in the Ryder Cup, and Watson needs to show something, anything, during these playoffs to warrant a pick.

Mell: Fowler. Fowler got off to that nice start this year with six top-10s in his first nine stroke-play starts, but he is struggling to find his best form since missing the cut at The Players, the first of three consecutive MCs. He doesn’t look steady, consistent or dependable right now, especially with that late collapse under pressure Sunday at The Barclays making his T-7 finish look less appealing.

Hoggard: Bubba. Like Fowler, Watson hasn’t had the best of years - his last top-10 finish was at Doral in March - and the quirky southpaw is an acquired taste for many of his colleagues. If Watson is going to be a unanimous pick, he will need to show he’s worthy.

Gray: Jim Furyk. While the rest of the contenders can view this upcoming stretch as a two-week audition, Furyk needs to bring his best to Boston or risk going home early. After missing much of the season with a wrist injury, a late-season surge leaves Furyk at No. 84 entering this week’s event. Only 70 players will advance to next week’s BMW Championship, meaning that Furyk has some work to do to extend his season. While Love has heaped plenty of praise on Furyk as a potential pick, it’s hard to see him getting the nod if he doesn’t make it to Crooked Stick.

Which player will earn the final Hot Hand pick?

Lavner: Gary Woodland. He’s off to a good start, with a tie for fourth at Bethpage. Woodland has had a solid, if unspectacular, season, ranking 26th in points, but his talent is undeniable. This year’s playoff venues all favor big hitters, and few can pound the ball like Woodland. He tied for 12th last year in Boston, so he should be poised for another climb up the points list.

Mell: Fowler. Almost anything is still possible with Love saying any American still alive in the FedEx Cup Playoffs remains in the running for a captain’s pick. If that’s true, Sean O’Hair, Gary Woodland, Ryan Moore and Jason Kokrak have to be dreaming big after their top-10 finishes at The Barclays. But Fowler gets the pick if he turns that disappointing Sunday at The Barclays into a hot FedEx Cup run. That T-7 at Bethpage Black looks a lot better lined up with two or three other FedEx Cup top-10s.

Hoggard: Daniel Berger. With the pressure off to autoqualify for Hazeltine, expect lasy year's Rookie of the Year to return to his impressive ways.

Gray: Justin Thomas. Thomas got the hard part out of the way, notching a top-10 finish last week at Bethpage Black to likely secure a Tour Championship appearance. He would have factored more heavily in the automatic qualification race had he gotten credit for his win this season at the CIMB Classic, and and he will have plenty of support from Spieth, Fowler and Jimmy Walker. More importantly, Thomas would bring a fresh fire to the biennial competition, and don’t be surprised if he gets the final nod after capping a strong postseason by contending at East Lake. 

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After Further Review: Spieth needs a break

By Golf Channel DigitalJune 25, 2018, 1:11 am

Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On Jordan Spieth's much-needed break ...

Jordan Spieth is heading for a break, and that’s probably a good thing.

Spieth just wrapped a run of six events in seven weeks that featured largely underwhelming results. A third-place finish at the Masters that stemmed from a nearly-historic final round deflects attention away from the fact that Spieth has yet to enter a final round this year less than six shots off the lead.

A return to his home state didn’t work, nor did a fight against par at Shinnecock or a title defense outside Hartford where everything went so well a year ago. His putting woes appear to have bottomed out, as Spieth finished 21st in putting at Travelers, but now the alignment issue that plagued his putting appears to have bled into other parts of his game.

So heading into another title defense next month at Carnoustie, Spieth plans to take some time off and re-evaluate. Given how fast things turned around last summer, that might prove to be just what he needs. - Will Gray

On the difference between this week and last week ...

There wasn’t a single outraged tweet, not a lone voice of descent on social media following Bubba Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, a 17-under par masterpiece that included a closing loop of 30.

Nobody declared that golf was broken, no one proclaimed the royal and ancient game a victim of technology and the age of uber athletes. The only response was appreciation for what Watson, a bomber in the truest form, was able to accomplish.

At 6,840 yards, TPC River Highlands was built for fun, not speed. Without wild weather or ill-advised hole locations and greens baked to extinction, this is what the best players in the game do, and yet no one seemed outraged. Weird. - Rex Hoggard

On the emergence of another LPGA phenom ...

Add another young star to the favorites list heading to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes outside Chicago next week.

Nasa Hataoka, the 19-year-old Japanese standout who needed her rookie season last year to acclimate to the LPGA, broke through for her first LPGA title Sunday at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

This wasn’t a surprise to LPGA followers. Hataoka won the Japan Women’s Open when she was 17, the first amateur to win a major on the Japan LPGA Tour, and she has been trending up this year.

Her tie for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open three weeks ago was her fourth consecutive top-10 finish. She won going away in Arkansas, beating a deep field that included the top nine in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She outplayed world No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn and No. 3 Lexi Thompson on Sunday. - Randall Mell

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Bubba waiting for Furyk's text about Ryder Cup

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:39 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – After winning his third PGA Tour title in the span of five months, Bubba Watson is now waiting by his phone.

Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, his third at TPC River Highlands since 2010, accompanies recent victories at both the Genesis Open and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play from earlier this year. It also moved the southpaw from No. 7 to No. 5 in the latest U.S. Ryder Cup standings, with the top eight after the PGA Championship qualifying automatically.

After serving as an assistant captain at Hazeltine despite ranking No. 7 in the world at the time, Watson made it clear that he hopes to have removed any doubt about returning to the role of player when the biennial matches head to Paris this fall.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It still says in my phone that (U.S. captain) Jim (Furyk) hasn’t texted me yet. So I’d really like for him to say I’m going to pick you no matter what,” Watson said. “The motivation is I’ve never won a Ryder Cup, so making the Ryder Cup team and trying to win a Ryder Cup as a player would be another tournament victory to me. It would be a major championship to me just because I’ve never done it, been a part of it.”

Watson turns 40 in November, and while he reiterated that his playing career might not extend too far into the future as he looks to spend more time at home with son Caleb and daughter Dakota, he’s also hoping to make an Olympic return in Tokyo in 2020 after representing the U.S. in Rio two years ago.

“Talking about the Olympics coming up, that’s motivating me,” he said. “It was the best experience of my life to watch all the other events, and then the golf tournament got in the way. I’d love to do it again. I’d love to watch all the events and then have to play golf as well.”

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Casey comes up short (again) to Bubba at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:07 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Staked to a four-shot lead entering the final round of the Travelers Championship, Paul Casey watched his opening tee shot bounce off a wooden wall and back into the middle of the fairway, then rolled in a 21-foot birdie putt off the fringe.

At the time, it appeared to be a not-so-subtle indicator that Casey was finally going to get his hands on a trophy that has barely eluded him in the past. Instead it turned out to be the lone highlight of a miserable round that left the Englishman behind only Bubba Watson at TPC River Highlands for the second time in the last four years.

Casey shot the low round of the tournament with a third-round 62 that distanced him from the field, but that opening birdie turned out to be his only one of the day as he stalled out and ultimately finished three shots behind Watson, to whom he lost here in a playoff in 2015.

Casey’s score was 10 shots worse than Saturday, as a 2-over 72 beat only five people among the 73 others to play the final round.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“I mean, I fought as hard as I could, which I’m proud of,” Casey said. “Not many times you put me on a golf course and I only make one birdie. I don’t know. I’d be frustrated with that in last week’s event, but it is what it is.”

Casey led by as many as five after his opening birdie, but he needed to make a 28-foot par save on No. 10 simply to maintain a one-shot edge over a hard-charging Watson. The two men were tied as Casey headed to the 16th tee, but his bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 combined with a closing birdie from Watson meant the tournament was out of reach before Casey even reached the final tee.

Casey explained that a “bad night of sleep” led to some neck pain that affected his warm-up session but didn’t impact the actual round.

“Just frustrating I didn’t have more,” he said. “Didn’t have a comfortable swing to go out there and do something with.”

Casey won earlier this year at the Valspar Championship to end a PGA Tour victory drought that dated back to 2009, but after being denied a second victory in short succession when he appeared to have one hand on the trophy, he hopes to turn frustration into further success before turning the page to 2019.

“I’m probably even more fired up than I was post-Tampa to get another victory. This is only going to be more fuel,” Casey said. “I’ve got 12 events or something the rest of the year. So ask me again in November, and if I don’t have another victory, then I will be disappointed. This is merely kind of posturing for what could be a very good climax.”

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Bubba thrives in his comfort zone

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:02 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – The 1:20 p.m. pairing Sunday at TPC River Highlands spanned the spectrum on the PGA Tour. In one corner stood science. Bryson DeChambeau, whose quantitative approach to golf seemingly knows no bounds, was looking to add another victory after winning a playoff earlier this month at Jack’s Place.

On the other side was art.

Bubba Watson doesn’t float golf balls in Epsom salt to identify minor imperfections. He doesn’t break out a compass to find the slightest errors in the Tour-supplied pin sheet. Even when he texts caddie Ted Scott, he prefers to use voice text rather than rely on his admittedly sub-optimal spelling.

But strolling along one of his favorite landscapes, Bubba the artist came out on top. Again.

Watson is in the midst of a resurgent season, one that already included a third victory at one of his favorite haunts in Riviera Country Club. It featured a decisive run through the bracket at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and a return to the leaderboards at Augusta National where he fell short of a third green jacket.

It only makes sense, then, that he’d build upon that burgeoning momentum at the Travelers Championship, where he earned his first PGA Tour victory in 2010 and Sunday joined Billy Casper as the tournament’s only three-time champ with a final-round 63 to catch and pass Paul Casey.

This is a place where Watson can bomb drives by feel and carve short irons at will, and one where he officially put his stamp on the best season to date on Tour.

“His hand-eye coordination is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen,” DeChambeau said. “You’ve got me who was just struggling off the tee, and he’s just swiping shots down there. It was cool to watch. I wish I could do that. I probably could do that, but I just don’t feel like I’d be as consistent as he is.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Consistency wasn’t an apt descriptor a year ago, as Watson went from two-time major champ to completely off the radar. His world ranking, which began last year at No. 10 and is now back up to No. 13 after he became the first three-time winner this season, fell as far as 117th before his win at Riviera in February.

Watson attributes much of the turnaround to a change in health. Never really one to tip the scales, he lost 25 pounds in a three-month span last year while battling an undisclosed health concern. After putting some of the weight back on, he’s now able to focus more of his time and energy on fine-tuning one of the Tour’s most distinctive approaches.

“Anytime any of these guys kind of get comfortable with just being them, and golf is secondary in a sense, it helps them reach their potential,” said Scott. “I think the hype and the pressure can sometimes put things out of sort. And right now he’s just very comfortable with who he is as a person, and I think in his life. It helps him relax on the golf course.”

What Watson doesn’t prefer to mention is the equipment change he made that serves as a not-so-subtle line of demarcation. The southpaw turned heads at the end of 2016 when he agreed to play a colored Volvik ball on Tour during the 2017 season, only to watch his results fall off a cliff. A return to the Titleist ball he previously used has coincided with some of the best results of his 12-year career.

“I don’t think it has had any (role) in my success,” Watson said. “My clubs weren’t going the distance that I used to. I couldn’t shape it the way I want to. Luckily for me, I know the problem, and the problem was with health and not all these other things.”

But regardless of the true source of his turnaround, Watson is back to doing what he does best. That includes carving up the handful of venues that most fit his unique eye, be they lined by thick kikuyu rough outside Los Angeles or dotted with menacing water hazards outside Hartford.

The artistic touch was on full display with his final swing of the day. Facing exactly 71 yards to a pin tucked barely over the edge of a yawning bunker on No. 18, Watson laid the face open on his 63-degree wedge and hit a cut shot that spun and checked to inside 3 feet.

“Teddy put his arm around me, like, ‘That was an amazing shot,’” Watson said. “He’s seen a lot of shots, he’s been out here for many years. So for him to realize it, and other players to text me and realize it, it was special.”

While it seemed at the time like a shot that gave Watson a glimmer of hope in his pursuit of Casey, it ultimately turned out to be the final highlight of a three-shot victory. It’s the type of shot that few, if any, of his peers can visualize, let alone execute with such exact precision with the tournament hanging in the balance.

It’s the type of shot that separates Watson – the quirky left-hander with the pink driver who openly talks about his struggles with on-course focus and abhors few things more than trying to hit a straight shot – from even the best in the game when things are firing on all cylinders.

“The skills have always been there, as you know. But he’s just more relaxed now,” Scott said. “And when these guys, obviously when they enjoy it, they can play at their best and not get too stressed.”