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U.S. Ryder Cup team taking shape as deadline nears

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SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Brooks Koepka struggled up the hill behind Baltusrol’s 18th green. There was no limp, but it wasn’t easy.

In his first start since straining ligaments in his right ankle the week before the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the 26-year-old was on his way to a T-4 finish at the PGA Championship.

Not bad for a guy who seemed to begin the week closer to the DL than the top of leaderboard.

Koepka admitted that if it had not been a major, and he wasn’t fighting for a spot on this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, he probably wouldn’t be playing the PGA. All week, he endured daily treatments, icings and tapings of his ailing ankle.

“It’s not fun to watch yourself go from third to ninth [on the Ryder Cup points list] especially since we were playing so well. It’s not fun, but we have to figure it out,” said Koepka, who was outside automatic qualifying on the U.S. points list before the PGA.

Koepka’s finish at Baltusrol, however, has moved him to fifth on the points list. He's not a lock yet, but Koepka's very close, and it's given both the player and the U.S. captain some breathing room.

“We talked before The Open about not pushing it and being ready for the PGA and playoffs, and Ryder Cup,” U.S. captain Davis Love III told on Sunday. “At the PGA we talked about taking it easy in the heat on practice days, and that he would be the most rested guy in the field. My dad always said I could take a month off and not forget how to play.”

Love had said all along the PGA, which was worth double the Ryder Cup points, would be when his team started to truly take shape. The eight automatic qualifiers will be set on Aug. 28 following The Barclays. There are still four events for players to make a move, but for Love some key pieces fell into place at Baltusrol.

With his victory at the PGA, Jimmy Walker vaulted from 29th on the list to fourth, virtually assuring him a spot at Hazeltine.

“I thought about that all year,” said Walker, who went 1-1-3 in 2014 at his first Ryder Cup. “I saw Davis this week and I told him, ‘Man, I'd love to be on your team.’”

Patrick Reed, who was one of the bright spots for the U.S. team two years ago at Gleneagles, also picked up some ground with his tie for 13th place at the PGA, moving up one spot from 11th to 10th on the points list.

But while Walker and Koepka’s play may have made things easier for Love, there remains a list of building decisions for Captain America.

Rickie Fowler struggled on the weekend at the PGA and tied for 33rd, dropping from 10th to 12th. It seems likely he’ll drop even further in the coming weeks since he’s not playing this week at the Travelers Championship or the following event so he can compete in the Olympics for the United States.

Love has four captain’s picks, announcing three on Sept. 12 following the BMW Championship and his final pick on Sept. 25, with a host of top players currently outside the automatic qualifiers, including Fowler, Reed, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar.

There is also the possibility Love could get creative with his picks, balancing what is currently a relatively young team with some veteran leadership.

Before his runner-up finish at the FedEx St. Jude Classic and his fourth-place showing at The Open, Steve Stricker was entirely content with his upcoming role as vice captain at this year’s matches. But his play has vaulted him from 71st on the points list in early June to 26th with three starts to improve his prospects.

“It really wasn’t on my radar too much until after Troon. I’ve had a couple of good tournaments recently, but I’m really starting to play nicely. After doing what I did at Troon it’s got my attention,” said Stricker, who added he would likely step down as vice captain if he makes the team. “I have to show Davis and everyone else that I’m legit and I can still play. It’s going to have to be something special, but I know I can do it.”

Jim Furyk, who is also one of Love’s vice captains, could also make a bid for a pick, moving to 21st on the points list this week; and a late victory – say, Watson at this week’s Travelers Championship where he’s already won twice – by any of the potential captain’s choices could create movement in the ranks.

“This week is double points. Guys could make some big changes this week,” Love said at the PGA. “So we're starting to think about the list a little bit more, but obviously after this week, we can solidify it a little bit better, start thinking about who might be picks.”

As Love predicted, the PGA Championship provided some Ryder Cup answers, but there are still plenty of questions.