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Hawk's Nest: Horschel, McIlroy define 2014 playoffs

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Hey, at least the guy earned his $10 million, although we certainly can debate whether Billy Horschel should have been eligible for it in the first place. A 125-man postseason? That’s a jailbreak, not a playoff format. One top-10 finish in 22 full-field, regular-season starts? That’s a 7-11 conference record and 17-15 overall – not exactly worthy of a ticket to the Big Dance.

In the 10 ½ months prior to The Barclays, where he would miss the cut, Horschel dropped steadily in the world ranking (34h to 59th). He loitered outside the top 50 in the FedEx Cup standings from mid-March onward, closing at 69th, yet he’d earned enough points to qualify for the season-ending playoff derby by the first week of June.

It’s a system designed primarily to cushion the blow of mediocrity, and Horschel took complete advantage. He ran the table at precisely the right time, and when Rory McIlroy’s limousine ran out of gas a mile short of the Atlanta branch of Finchem Savings & Loan, we had ourselves a 2013-14 champion.

So the hottest golfer in the world, who happens to be an American, won’t be at Gleneagles, which happens to be the site of next week’s Ryder Cup. And the Yanks happen to be something akin to a two-touchdown underdog, which leaves me to wonder if one of our boys might suddenly pull a hammy or happen to come down with flu-like symptoms.

Looking for all the drama this year’s postseason derby couldn’t provide? Horschel’s wife, Brittany, is expecting their first child Sept. 27 – Day 2 of U.S. vs. the Euros.

“I honestly wasn’t going to play in the Ryder Cup if we couldn’t induce labor early,” Horschel said Sunday night. “When I started playing [poorly] this year, I put it out of my mind that I’d get picked. Obviously I wasn’t, and it’s going to work out perfectly.”

Well, sort of. If Billy Ho’s hotness doesn’t convince the PGA of America to start holding a captain’s pick until the week before the matches, perhaps future team sweaters should be woven from the wool of a sacrificial lamb. I stand by the notion that choosing hot players is overrated, simply because there’s close to a month between the selections and the first national anthem.

It doesn’t take long for any tour pro to cool off, but then, we’ve never had a situation like this.

“I still don’t feel like I deserve to be on the team,” Horschel added.

Pardon me, William, but that’s not for you or Brittany’s obstetrician to decide.

NINETY PERCENT AIR. If you’re a 16 handicap spending an afternoon in the right trees, it’s an adage steeped in optimism, an unofficial measure of hope with potentially expensive consequences. If you’re a tour pro such as McIlroy, you simply whip out a wedge and fly it over the wooded area, as he did Sunday at East Lake’s par-5 ninth.

There was a problem, however, and it also came with expensive consequences: McIlroy was cooked. The familiar bounce in his step was gone, his pursuit of the FedEx Cup overall title punctured by a tee shot that didn’t come close to finding land at the par-3 sixth. A modest back-nine rally would leave him three strokes behind Horschel, with whom he began the day sharing the lead.

The scenario would bear a passing resemblance to 2012, when McIlroy entered the final round three strokes off the pace and in excellent position to claim the $10 million, only to stumble home with a 74. In both cases, he entered the Tour Championship as the game’s best player, riding a stretch of dominance but unable to apply a finishing kick on the season’s last day.

“I’m looking forward to a few days off and not seeing my golf clubs for a little while,” were the first words from the Irish Lad’s mouth in his post-round press gathering. “And then, when I’m ready and excited to get back out again, I’ll get ready for the Ryder Cup.”

What should be of significant concern in Camp Ponte Vedra is McIlroy’s long-term commitment to the four-week postseason, particularly in Ryder Cup years. Not only has he squandered two pretty good chances to win the pot o’ gold; he has done it at points in his career when he had nothing to prove.

When you’ve won back-to-back majors and a World Golf Championship, as McIlrampage did this summer – or a major and back-to-back playoff tilts, as he did in ’12 – additional participation becomes solely about money. If rich people don’t buy lottery tickets, greatness doesn’t chase cash, and McIlroy’s body language suggested a pronounced lack of interest once things went wrong Sunday.

He’s Player of the Year, hands down, owner of one of the best non-Tiger seasons in the modern era. Sunday’s falter doesn’t change that a bit, although it is very likely to change how McIlragged arranges his schedule in future Septembers.

“If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have taken a week off somewhere in this stretch of tournaments,” said a guy who already had been wobbly about playing four straight. “Not that you feel obligated, but you want to support the events and give the sponsors something to be happy about and proud of. I’ve got a great relationship with BMW, and that was probably the only reason I did play in Denver.”

Ahem, it’s nice to know the young man has his priorities in order.

NOW THAT I’VE gone over the FedEx Cup playoff results for like the 19th time, I thought it might be interesting to review how America’s 12 Ryder Cuppers performed at each event.

Player The Barclays D. Bank BMW Tour Champ.
Bubba Watson  T-30  T-29  2nd  14th
Rickie Fowler  T-9  T-23  T-4  8th
Jim Furyk  8th  T-23  T-4  T-2
Jimmy Walker  MC  T-9  T-20  T-17
Phil Mickelson  78th  T-45  WD  DNQ
Matt Kuchar  T-5  T-29  T-46  13th
Jordan Spieth  T-22  T-29  T-8  T-27
Patrick Reed  T-9  T-74  T-53  T-19
Zach Johnson  T-22  T-16  T-43  21st
Keegan Bradley  53rd  T-16  WD  DNQ
Hunter Mahan  Won  64th  T-59  T-23
Webb Simpson  MC  T-9  T-53  T-23

A little too much information for you to consume at this point in the day? Allow me to help with some crib notes:

Skipper Tom Watson’s dubious dozen accumulated 13 top-10s in 50 total starts. Mahan obviously picked up the only victory – that’s why he’s on the team. What strikes me about the data is how infrequently U.S. players contended on any of the four Sundays, although a spot in the final-round hunt is a subjective appraisal.

For instance, I’m unwilling to give Fowler credit for contending at the Tour Championship. He finished solo eighth, six back, and wasn’t a realistic factor after a water ball at the sixth. There are lots of different ways to finish T-5, as Kuchar did at The Barclays – Kooch ended up one shot ahead of third-round co-leader Jim Furyk. Although neither had a chance of winning as the tournament reached its homestretch, I’ll begrudgingly give both credit for contending because they finished within four of Mahan.

As was the case a month ago, Furyk and Fowler remain America’s most consistent players – both performed solidly at all four postseason affairs. Neither, however, has won in forever, which means whatever you want it to mean. You want hot golfers? Talk to Brittany Horschel’s doctor.