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Odd man out?

Keegan Bradley
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The golf landscape has been littered with more grassy knolls of late than Dallas’ Dealey Plaza.

First it was Ballotgate and the PGA Tour’s curious decision to delay the release of the Player of the Year vote until after this week’s WGC-HSBC Champions, and now it seems the conspiracy theorists have started to dissect Tuesday’s announcement that John Cook would replace Michael Jordan as an assistant captain at this month’s Presidents Cup.

On its surface, the decision to have Cook step in for MJ quacks and swims like a duck. Jordan, the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, said the decision to step down as official walkie-talkie carrier was based on the ongoing NBA lockout.

“With the NBA labor situation unsettled, I feel it is necessary that I remain in the country,” Jordan said.

And Cook seems an obvious enough choice to join Jay Haas as an assistant at Royal Melbourne. The 11-time Tour winner never participated in a Presidents Cup, but he played in one Ryder Cup (1993) and is almost a contemporary to the veteran members of the U.S. team.

Some sources, however, have suggested the move is more convoluted than that. When U.S. captain Fred Couples announced his wild-card picks last month – Tiger Woods and Bill Haas – he also noted that Keegan Bradley would be the first player off the bench if Steve Stricker, who has been slowed this fall by a neck ailment, can’t play.

Stricker has been at home in Wisconsin since the Tour Championship resting and undergoing intense therapy for a herniated disk in his neck, but in an interview last week with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he did not sound like a man convinced he would be on the first tee Nov. 17.

“My left arm feels a little bit different than my right. Opening a jar at home or whatever, I don't feel like I have the finger strength,” said Stricker, although he also added, “My arm would have to be falling off for me not to play.”

Despite those comments Bradley’s camp has indicated he will not make the trip to Australia unless he is “invited,” a fact that led some to believe that Tuesday’s move to bring Cook Down Under was Couples’ plan B.

As recently as 2006 Cook played a full Tour schedule, he finished in third place at this year’s Mayakoba Golf Classic and, perhaps more importantly, maintains a good relationship with Woods.

If for some reason Stricker – who teamed with Woods in 2009 to lead the U.S. side with a perfect 4-0 record – can’t play, having Cook come out of the bullpen could be a viable option for Couples.

When asked on Tuesday if he would consider running Cook, or Haas, in from the bench Couples didn’t even know that was an option. “That’s a heck of a question,” he said.

According to the captain’s agreement for the matches, “in the event of illness, injury or any other emergency, a team member may be replaced prior to 6 p.m. local time, Wednesday of tournament week. The captain will have the ability to select any eligible player to replace a player who has withdrawn, regardless of his standing on the respective point or money list used to determine eligibility.”

When informed either Cook or Haas could step in Couples seemed open to the idea. “I would have to get the grace of the guys on the team, but I would not want one of Norman’s guys to have to sit,” he said.

After Wednesday’s 6 p.m. deadline neither captain would be allowed to replace an injured player in the lineup. After that Norman and Couples will submit an envelope with a player’s name. In the event of an American withdrawal, for example, the player listed in Norman’s envelope would sit out the matches and the points would be split.

Lost in that contingency plan is Bradley, a Tour rookie who won twice this year and is the only American to claim a major in 2011. Why wasn’t the PGA champion offered a spot in Couples’ team room?

Sergio Garcia served as an assistant to Colin Montgomerie at last year’s Ryder Cup and European captain Nick Faldo tabbed than-up-and-coming star Martin Kaymer for a special “assistant” role during the 2008 matches.

Garcia spent the week in Wales as a glorified cheerleader, but used the experience to emerge from a prolonged slump and is on track to make next year’s team; while Kaymer went on to become world No. 1 and played a key role for the European team in 2010.

Couples said he has not spoken to Bradley since he made his picks and when asked if he considered offering him a spot as a special assistant, like Garcia and Kaymer, he pointed out, “Sergio asked to be there. They didn’t call Sergio. If Keegan were to call me I would fall down backwards to have him there.”

“If (Stricker) calls me tomorrow (and says he can’t play) I will fly to Keegan’s house and tell him (he’s on the team),” said Couples, who is limited to two assistant captains.

Knowing Stricker this issue will likely become a non-story by the time the matches begin. If he can swing the club he will join Woods on the first tee at Royal Melbourne, and Couples was optimistic his star would be available.

“I’ve talked to Steve 30 times on the phone and on text messages the last month. He’s fine,” Couples said. “That’s why I called Steve 100 times; I hate having to ask him, ‘How’s your back?’ But he tells me he will be ready. . . . I’ve had back issues in my life and when someone tells you he can play that’s good enough for me.”

But if there’s a chance, however slim, that Stricker can’t play it seems Couples missed his chance to expose Bradley to the cup atmosphere and give himself an insurance policy in the event someone can’t play. This isn’t a conspiracy by any measure, just a missed opportunity.