The U.S. Ryder Cup team takes shape, Dustin Johnson puts on a clinic, Tiger Woods signs up for three events, the FedEx Cup season nears an end and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
Two weeks ago, when Darren Clarke announced his three captain’s picks, it was clear that he had a number of solid options at his disposal and left out a few deserving players. (Hello, Russell Knox.) You don’t get that same sense with Davis Love III’s first round of selections.
Though there was little need to justify Clarke’s three selections – a grizzled veteran, a former world No. 1 with big-game experience and a three-time winner in the past year – Love’s first three choices Monday required at least some defending. That’s not his fault, of course – the options were uninspiring.
Matt Kuchar has had a solid season, but he hasn’t won in a year and a half. J.B. Holmes was 10th in points and has played well in spurts this year, but he’s also a below-average iron player and putter. And Rickie Fowler, well, he’s failed to back up his breakthrough year and has just one top-20 in his last seven starts.
The good news for the Americans is that they still should win at Hazeltine – their automatic qualifiers are better, and the home-course advantage is significant – which would make all of the hand-wringing over these picks a moot point.
1. Fowler, in particular, put Love in an uncomfortable position. Anybody who’s watched golf over the past three years assumed that Fowler would be on the team, but frankly, over the past several months, he’s done little to warrant a spot. Even when he was on the verge of securing an automatic berth, he stumbled, shooting 39 on the back nine to crash out of the lead at The Barclays. Over the past two weeks, gassed, he failed to crack the top 45 and didn’t even qualify for the Tour Championship.
"We found no weaknesses in his game," Love said. "He's a good teammate and confident on a big stage."
2. The fourth and final pick will be made during halftime of NBC’s Sunday Night Football game, following the Tour Championship. You’d think Love would want to make a big splash with that announcement – an avoid the here-we-go-again drama that accompanies a Jim Furyk pick – but it’s possible that he could roll with the hot hand, if Justin Thomas or Daniel Berger, for instance, were able to add to their résumé and win at East Lake.
3. That’s why next week is shaping up to be a big spot for Bubba Watson.
At No. 7 in the world, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for him to be left off a Ryder Cup team – Paul Casey was No. 8 in 2010 – but it would send a larger message.
With a renewed focus on team building and inclusivity, Love and Co. would essentially be telling Watson that he’s not well-liked by his peers and difficult to partner with. There's also his recent form (no top-10s in six months) and Ryder Cup record, which includes an 0-3 mark in singles.
“Hopefully he looks at the world ranking and sees I’m pretty decent,” Watson said.
Problem is, that might not be enough.
4. Those hoping for a new-look Ryder Cup team in 2016 surely must be disappointed by this latest news. Brooks Koepka remains the only newcomer to the squad; since 1927, only one U.S. team has had just a single rookie on the team. Of course, that was in 1999, when the Americans staged an improbable rally and won.
Why is this important?
Because since 2010, rookies are 22-17-9. The veterans over that same span? 31-41-11.
5. Expanded on these thoughts here, but there’s no one in golf who elicits the same kind of hopeless how-are-we-going-to-beat-this-guy? player comments as Johnson. His skill set is unmatched, and with his improved wedge play (he’s fifth on Tour in proximity to the hole from 50-125 yards) he’s virtually unbeatable when he’s on form.
Paul Casey shot 20 under par at Crooked Stick – a total that would have been good enough to win or force a playoff in all but five events this season – but still finished three shots behind. He was asked afterward what it would take to get over the hump.
He nodded at DJ. “Having him not in the field?”
6. Johnson likely wrapped up the PGA Tour Player of the Year award on Sunday, at least according to a very unofficial poll of a few players.
DJ now has three victories this season, same as world No. 1 Jason Day, but counts a major among that total. (And, yes, that’s a very big deal.) He also has three more top-10s on Tour (14) than any other player, while leading the race for the Vardon Trophy, for the lowest adjusted scoring average (69.14). Sure, Day might steal a few votes if he can win the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup, but it’s clear after the BMW that Johnson has had the more consistently excellent season.
7. Speaking of Day, his status for the season finale is in question after withdrawing from the BMW Championship because of a back injury.
Officially, it’s a pinched joint capsule in his lower back, but the discomfort is in a similar area to the spot that nearly led to him to withdrawing from the WGC-Match Play. (Instead, of course, he went on to win.) At the BMW, Day had shown no previous signs that he was ailing and injured himself when he bent down to put his tee in the ground. It’s yet another reminder of how this chronic back condition – he has a constant maintenance program – will continue to trail Day for as long as he swings with such a powerful but violent motion.
8. In a move that apparently didn’t surprise many Tour players, Woods announced last week that he hopes to play in three events before the end of the year, beginning with the Oct. 13-16 Safeway Open.
The key word there: "hopes".
There is still some doubt whether Woods will be able to tee it up in Napa. He is only four weeks away from the start of the season opener (Ryder Cup week will be a waste, preparation-wise), and it’s possible that he could suffer a physical setback when he ramps up his workload in anticipation of his return.
Because there is more to this comeback than just being able to hit quality golf shots under tournament conditions – he has to play seven rounds (in theory), walk about 50 miles, practice for an hour each day and then recover quick enough to play again in roughly 12 hours. It’s fair to wonder whether Woods has put his back (which has required three procedures since April 2014) under that type of strain.
9. In Woods’ statement, there was a sense that he was already setting the stage for lowered expectations.
A nice thought, but sadly, it’s unrealistic. Everything with Woods is bigger and bolder – the attention, the scrutiny, the takes.
If Woods played baseball, he’d have the benefit of a minor-league rehab assignment. He could get in his reps, play with little fanfare and return to the big leagues when he was deemed ready.
There is no such system in golf, however, and especially not for a global superstar like Woods. Even if he somehow wanted a low-key return, in a Web.com Tour event, it'd become one of the biggest tournaments of the year.
From his first tee shot to his final putt (whether that’s on Friday or Sunday), his performance will be dissected in myriad ways, every swing subject to slow-motion analysis. It’s wildly unfair, of course, but Rory McIlroy put it best: “He’s definitely a victim of his own success.”
10. Maybe it’s because he’s bored without tournament competition, or perhaps he’s simply enjoying the tactical aspects of his new role, but apparently Woods has been all in as a Ryder Cup vice captain.
Phil Mickelson said that not only has Woods been involved with all of the decision-making regarding the U.S. team, but he was blown away by how detail-oriented Woods has been with the pairings and lineups. “He has got us a really good, solid game plan that is easy to buy into and get behind,” Mickelson said. “I’m very impressed.”
11. Last week, McIlroy was asked about the fact that the European Ryder Cup team will head into Hazeltine without Knox and Casey, both of whom are ranked inside the top 20 in the world.
Though Knox was passed over in favor of Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Thomas Pieters, Casey ruled himself out of consideration, after declining to pursue European Tour membership this season to spend more time with his family here in the States.
Knox and Casey’s world ranking is better than seven members of the European team, and few players in the world are performing better at the moment than the Englishman, who now has back-to-back runners-up in the playoffs.
“I’ve always said it should be the best 12 Europeans regardless of whether they’re a member of a tour or not,” McIlroy said. “I think that’s the hard thing.”
Then again, it’s hard to criticize the Europeans here: They’ve won eight of the past 10 cups for a reason.
12. The BMW Championship remains the most volatile but confusing event in the playoffs. After each round, players were asked about their position in the projected FedEx Cup standings, and each time, as if on cue, they responded that because it changes so much, they’re better off keeping their head down, playing as well as they can and seeing how it all stacks up at the end.
As much as the Tour wanted to create a dynamic where there are multiple races to follow – the tournament title, the top five and the top 30! – it’s terrible for fans on-site and mostly a made-for-TV event, nothing more.
“On TV, you can tell,” Fowler said, “but as far as spectating, I’m sure it’s tough to follow and understand the points system.”
13. Now that Casey is No. 5 in points, there is a scenario (however unlikely) that he could win the whole FedEx Cup without winning a tournament this season. It’d require the four players ahead of him – DJ, P-Reed, Scott and J-Day – to play poorly at East Lake, but it’s certainly possible.
If you want the FedEx Cup to be blown up, this is the scenario you've been waiting for.
14. Unable to secure his card during the regular season, Bryson DeChambeau made sure that his stay in the minors wouldn’t be long.
One of the game’s most eccentric characters won his first pro event when he defeated Andres Gonzales in a playoff at the Web.com Tour Finals opener. With the victory, DeChambeau clinched his card for next season. He was in the field after earning enough non-member points on Tour to finish inside the top 200.
Now that some of his quirky appeal has worn off, it’ll be time for DeChambeau to deliver in what will be a stacked rookie class, with Jon Rahm, Ollie Schniederjans, Wesley Bryan, Trey Mullinax and more.
If you've ever listened to a live news conference, then you know that some of the questions posed to athletes can be a bit odd.
Hey, I’ve certainly had more than my fair share of interviewing awkwardness, where a question doesn’t come out right or is just downright confusing.
But this right here … well, this was an all-timer.
It’s still not known which media member asked the following question to McIlroy after he won last week at the Deutsche Bank Championship, but the who isn’t nearly as important as the FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHY?
Here it is, word for word:
Like the Eminem song, "Guess Who’s Back," is that how you feel?
To his credit, McIlroy didn’t simply stare at the interviewer and then walk away. “A little bit, yeah …” he started, before transitioning to how quickly fortunes can change in this game.
Not only is it a bizarre, 14-year-old reference, but that wasn’t even the name of the Eminem song! (Obviously, it’s “Without Me”.)
This is, without a doubt, the most head-scratching item to ever appear in this section.
This week's award winners ...
Game-Changer for College Golf?: Mike Small's new contract. The Illinois coach received an extension worth more than $2 million over the next six years. Small has transformed the Illini into a national powerhouse over the past few years, but he has yet to win a national title. You can bet other big-name coaches printed out that press release and placed it on their athletic directors' desk. More and more of these guys are about to get PAID.
The Biggest Key for American Success at the Ryder Cup: The stars have to play better. Since 2004, the U.S. players ranked in the top 10 have gone 32-48-7, while Europe’s best have posted a 44-24-14 record.
When You Must Finish But Are Running out of Daylight: UC Davis' Ben Corfee, who holed out on the final green thanks to cellphone flashlights.
One heck of a putt last night ! pic.twitter.com/wNPwig2nx7— UC Davis Mens Golf (@UCD_MensGolf) September 11, 2016
Just Blame Jason Day: DJ’s improved putting. Johnson was second last week in strokes gained-putting with a new wand, the TaylorMade Spider Limited putter, which he put in the bag after watching Day hole putt after putt during their recent rounds together. The only difference was that Johnson’s putter (it’s actually younger brother/caddie Austin’s) is black, not red. “I just didn’t want to use the same putter Jason was,” DJ said. “Like the same exact one.”
Maybe He Shouldn’t Have Done That … : Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard finished 32nd in FedEx Cup points, which makes you wonder whether he should have bashed his putter to the point that it became an unusable crooked stick during the third round. He shot 76-73 on the weekend to drop out of the top 30.
The Most Kooch Thing Ever: Matt Kuchar couldn’t figure out Skype for the captain's pick announcement. And then he referred to the internet as the “worldwide web.” Golly gee!
Same Last Name, Same Hatless Success: Luke Schniederjans. The younger brother of PGA Tour-bound Ollie Schniederjans, the Georgia Tech freshman (who also plays without a hat) won in his first college start over the weekend. Free sunblock for everyone!
Most Bizarre Incident of the Week: Thomas Pieters. The newly named European Ryder Cup captain’s pick participated in an exhibition last Monday with Joost Luiten. During the event he was stung by a bee and suffered a “major allergic reaction,” causing him to withdraw from the KLM Open. Fortunately, Pieters is fine, but that didn’t stop Justin Rose (with whom Pieters shares a management company) from poking fun:
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: McIlroy. A week after his impressive victory in Boston, at a course that he owned in 2012, McIlroy was the consensus top pick for the BMW. Then he reverted to bad-putting Rory, finishing the week second-to-last on the greens (surrendering 9.96 shots!) and tying for 42nd. Sigh.