ATLANTA – Back at his home in Kansas, Tom Watson must be watching the last few PGA Tour events with clenched fists. He must be wistfully examining the developments. He must be feeling pangs of regret every time a leaderboard flashes across the screen.
All for reasons he easily could have avoided.
Two weeks ago, the United States Ryder Cup captain announced his three wildcard selections to the roster. Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson will each join the team at Gleneagles. Excellent golfers, proven winners, experienced competitors.
And yet, the choices still left plenty of observers befuddled. After all, since accepting the captaincy, Watson has persistently claimed he wanted hot hands entering the festivities.
Well, just two weeks before the first shot will be struck in Scotland, the two hottest hands are both American players – and neither of them are on the Ryder Cup team.
Chris Kirk and Billy Horschel are not only 1-2 in the FedEx Cup standings, they are currently listed in reverse order atop this week’s Tour Championship leaderboard. Meanwhile, Bradley didn’t qualify for the season finale and Simpson and Mahan are tied for 25th place in the 29-man field.
That’s not to say any of them was the “wrong” pick, because that won’t be determined until they actually compete overseas. But they certainly don’t fall in line with the captain’s personal edict.
Watson shouldn’t be blamed for not seeing these performances in his crystal ball. He shouldn’t be blamed for making what he considered were the best choices for his team at the time.
No, here's where the blame can be traced to the captain: There exists no rule which states these wildcard picks must be decided by a certain date. As captain, Watson could have mandated that he was moving the announcement back two weeks in order to choose players who were in form.
There’s no reason why he couldn’t have done this. Did they need time to prepare passports? Heck, every pro golfer in the world has an updated one. To ensure they’d have tailored uniforms? Every candidate was fitted for clothes long ago. To get the hotel rooms set? It’s not too difficult to change names on a room – especially when that room is being held for a Ryder Cup team member.
It even made sense logistically. Unlike previous years, the current schedule includes an off week between the Tour Championship and Ryder Cup – which ostensibly would have given three picks a full week to prepare for the rigors of the competition.
Such a move would have been very much within Watson’s jurisdiction, too. In fact, it wouldn’t even be an original concept. Just six years ago, Paul Azinger pushed the captain’s picks announcement back three weeks, from its previous spot directly after the PGA Championship.
Moving it back this year might have resulted in a different team dynamic – not that the two guys for whom it likely could have affected are whining about the situation.
“I don't feel like I deserve to be on this team,” said Horschel, who won last week’s BMW Championship. “Two weeks doesn't mean you should be on a Ryder Cup. It may mean you may be the hottest player, but doesn't mean you've played a good enough year to be on the team.”
“I don't care anymore than I did a week or two ago,” added Kirk, who took the Deutsche Bank Championship two weeks ago. “I mean, it's not really that big of a deal. Those guys that he picked are great players, and they're going to go do great. I'm a little tired, and I'm looking forward to my rest.”
They’re not the only players who potentially could have made a last-minute rally, either. Of the top 13 on the leaderboard at East Lake, 10 are U.S.-born players – and seven (Horschel, Kirk, Kevin Na, Ryan Palmer, Cameron Tringale, Russell Henley and Bill Haas) aren’t members of the Ryder Cup team.
Many of ‘em wish they still had a chance.
Palmer hit an approach shot to 18 inches for a tap-in birdie on the eighth hole Friday. His playing partner and European team stalwart Sergio Garcia turned to him and exclaimed, “I’m glad you’re not on the Ryder Cup team!” – a compliment by any measure.
“I think it would be a good question to ask the PGA,” Palmer said. “Why is it chosen so early?”
Horschel, who will take a two-stroke lead into the weekend, isn’t asking that question. But he has been asked a question recently from the man in charge of the team.
“Tom Watson sent me a text the other night,” he divulged. “It's exactly what I thought it was going to be, just sort of said, ‘Where was this sooner?’ People said, ‘Does Tom Watson think he's kicking himself?’ I said, ‘No, he's not kicking himself. He's going to kick me for not playing better sooner.’”
Maybe he isn’t kicking himself, but there’s no doubt he’s watching on TV at home. It won’t be much longer until Watson arrives in Scotland, understands that he’s without the two hottest U.S. players and realizes he’s not in Kansas anymore.