GREENSBORO, N.C. – The annual bubble watch has taken on a different tone this year at the Wyndham Championship.
Sure, there will still be steadfast checking of projected FedEx Cup standings in the final week of the regular season, as players endure one last 72-hole crucible to determine playing privileges for next season.
But thanks to a malleable summer schedule, there’s another race nearing its conclusion that has brought some high-profile names to Greensboro.
The Ryder Cup is now just six weeks away, and while typically the teams are largely set by this stage, this year there are still two events remaining for players on both teams to earn automatic qualifying berths.
There are eight such spots available on the American side, and the 11th-hour competition to secure a roster spot is fierce.
Less than $50,000 separates No. 8 Patrick Reed from No. 9 Brandt Snedeker. Both are in the field this week, meaning a top-25 finish could be enough to flip the pecking order heading into The Barclays. It’s an incentive that has led No. 13 Scott Piercy to make a rare appearance at Sedgefield Country Club, and it resulted in No. 18 Jim Furyk choosing to return for the first time since 2011.
But the player likely under the most pressure to perform is Wyndham debutant Rickie Fowler – a scenario that seemed implausible a few months ago.
After all, Fowler was one of the hottest players in the world to start the year, backing up a three-win 2015 campaign with a convincing victory over a strong field in Abu Dhabi. That was followed by a playoff loss to Hideki Matsuyama in Phoenix, when Fowler surrendered a two-shot lead over the final two holes.
A bittersweet result, sure. But it was also further evidence that Fowler was likely to cruise through the balance of a busy summer schedule that would end with him donning the stars and stripes at Hazeltine.
Needless to say, things haven’t exactly worked out that way.
Since the Masters, Fowler has posted more missed cuts (four) than top-25 finishes (three). His best result in that stretch, a T-4 finish at Quail Hollow, was tinged with disappointment after he failed to convert a 54-hole lead, closing with a 74.
Even last week’s performance at the Olympics was a microcosm for Fowler’s season: a third-round burst, just enough to reinforce his vast potential, but not enough to compensate for 54 other mediocre holes.
As a result, Fowler has gone from a virtual Ryder Cup lock to a very precarious position: 12th in points and perhaps competing with the likes of Snedeker, Furyk, Matt Kuchar and Bubba Watson for one of captain Davis Love III’s four selections.
Keenly aware of the situation, Fowler decided to book a last-minute ticket from Rio to Greensboro in the hopes of turning things around with the deadline looming.
“With where I was on Ryder Cup points and knowing that the points, with Bethpage coming up, this was a good addition to the schedule,” Fowler said Wednesday. “It wasn’t something we planned on earlier in the year, but the Ryder Cup is something that means a lot to me. It’s something where I’ve been a part of two teams, and I don’t want to miss out on another one.”
Fowler is in danger of doing just that, and after a sluggish summer the culprit is clear. Fowler is sixth this season on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green and seventh in total strokes gained, but he sits just 56th in strokes gained putting.
“It’s been a struggle ever since Abu Dhabi, not making any putts,” he said. “When putts don’t go in, you don’t have that complete confidence in the putter. It kind of can start bleeding into the rest of the game.”
Fowler’s putting woes contributed in part to missed cuts at Augusta National and Oakmont, and his bid for an Olympic medal was derailed on the very first green last week in Rio when he opened with a four-putt.
With the self-doubt continuing to mount, Fowler has started to tinker with his putting with increasing frequency. He has gone back and forth between conventional and cross-handed grips since the Quicken Loans National in June, including attempts with both grips last week in Brazil.
While he was putting cross-handed under the midday sun Wednesday on the Sedgefield putting green, Fowler admits his mechanics remain a work in progress.
“Just been something I’ve done every year or two. It’s almost like the cross-handed is a little, I guess, an aid in a way,” he said. “It actually puts me in a better position at setup. Sometimes I get a little off (with) conventional, and just a way of getting it back to where I want it to be.”
That last bit could also apply to Fowler’s overall game, which hasn’t been where he wants it to be for several months now.
While it’s hard to imagine a Ryder Cup team without him – especially at a domestic venue where his popularity with partisan crowds could have a tangible impact on the outcome – it is now a very plausible scenario.
Fowler could still earn a pick, even without a late burst of form. But while his play has remained stagnant, his competition has picked up significantly – first Furyk’s 58 at the Travelers Championship, then Kuchar’s bronze medal performance at the Olympics.
Fowler now has two more chances to nab an automatic bid, a high-stakes fortnight that begins this week with an unexpected detour to the Tar Heel State.
It’s a circumstance that few could have predicted earlier this year, but it’s one that means the FedEx Cup bubble boys won’t be the only ones sweating this week at Sedgefield.