Jim Furyk is officially on the clock.
All of those vague, circumspect answers he’s given in recent months about the U.S. Ryder Cup team – you know the lines: it’s still early; there’s a lot of golf to play; we’ll see in a few months – now give way to a quickly approaching deadline.
The eight automatic qualifiers will be set in 2 ½ short weeks, after the PGA Championship, a narrow window that makes at least half of Furyk’s team essentially locks.
From Brooks Koepka, No. 1 on the U.S. points, to Jordan Spieth, No. 6, there are few, if any, scenarios that could keep that half dozen from qualifying for this year’s matches, even with next week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (which is worth 1 ½ points for every $1,000 earned) and the PGA (2 points per $1,000) looming.
That essentially leaves the final two automatic qualifiers, currently held by Rickie Fowler and Webb Simpson, up for grabs. To give an idea of how thin the margins are between the Ryder Cup haves and have nots, Simpson overtook Bryson DeChambeau for the last spot when he tied for 12th at Carnoustie. DeChambeau tied for 51st in Scotland.
But as the American team comes into focus that doesn’t mean Furyk’s job is done. In fact, some would say the toughest aspect of any captaincy comes after the top eight are set.
Furyk will round out his team with four picks at various times over the next month and if he had a general idea of what direction he might be heading before The Open that blueprint will probably be nip/tucked over the next few weeks.
Of particular interest will be the play of Tiger Woods through the PGA and into the FedExCup playoffs. Woods moved to 20th on the points list, up from 31st, with his tie for sixth at The Open and seems bound for a duel role in Paris as both vice captain and player; although, Furyk still isn’t ready to sign off on what many believe is inevitable.
“I’m going to handle him the way I do everyone else,” Furyk told the Associated Press this week. “I’ll ask my top eight guys. The way he’s playing, he might be one of them. I’ll ask the vice captains, collectively, and I think we’ll do the best we can to round out the team. We want the guys playing the best.”
Depending on what transpires over the next two weeks, it’s a safe bet that Phil Mickelson, currently No. 10 on the points list, and Matt Kuchar, No. 12, are on the short list of potential picks. Both players bring a wealth of experience to a team that’s trending young.
That would, in theory, leave two captain’s picks for Furyk. If Woods doesn’t qualify, the 14-time major champion seems to be an obvious choice as a pick. That would leave just a single spot for any number of a half-dozen players.
Although Furyk doesn’t give much away, a recent scouting trip to Le Golf National, site of this year’s matches outside of Paris, may provide some insight into what the captain is thinking.
Furyk said Tony Finau played the course during the scouting trip with primarily a 3-iron off the tee and that Justin Thomas, who is assured a spot on the team at fourth on the list, hit just a handful of drivers when he played the French Open on the course earlier this month.
Furyk’s bench is deep with bombers, from Koepka to No. 2 Dustin Johnson and No. 5 Bubba Watson. By all accounts, Le Golf National will require a more measured approach, which could prompt the captain to add some competitive diversity to his line up.
Kevin Kisner, who finished second at The Open and is finding his form at the perfect time, could be a good fit, as could Brian Harman, another fairways-and-greens type whose reputation as a fierce competitor would fit in well with Furyk’s no-nonsense approach. Kisner and Harman rank 13th and 15th on the U.S. points, respectively.
Given his play at Carnoustie, Furyk will also give Xander Schauffele (No. 11), the reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year who also finished runner-up last week in Scotland, a close look; and Zach Johnson (No. 18), a veteran on five U.S. Ryder Cup teams, would be a popular addition to the team room.
“We had a lot of guys in pretty good form,” Furyk told the AP. “Flip over to Tiger, you look at him because he’s Tiger, and he’s earned a lot of attention. ... I loved seeing him play well. I loved seeing him jump to 20th. It’s fun to watch. But we’ll handle him like everyone else.”
Furyk was always going to be one of the more measured modern captains – it’s what made him such an easy choice to lead this year’s team – and his reluctance to jump too far ahead is understandable, but as the U.S. Ryder Cup team comes into focus over the next few weeks the American skipper can feel the crunch of time.