At the conclusion of this week’s PGA Championship nine players will have earned points for the playing of The Ryder Cup Matches set for September 23-28 at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland.
Tom Watson eschewed using the allotted four Captain choices and will have three wild-card picks in finalizing the USA squad.
The most immediate vexing issue for Watson is dealing with the uncertainty tied to Tiger Woods. With Woods pulling out of the final round at the Bridgestone Invitational and his status for the PGA uncertain it seems likely Watson will look elsewhere for his final picks. Watson’s threshold for a Woods selection was quite emphatic—be competitive and healthy—neither of which Woods has done.
Team Europe is looking to win for the eighth time in the last 10 meetings and the American squad will clearly be the underdog in Scotland. The last American win on foreign soil came in 1993 at The Belfry in England. Interestingly, Watson was the team Captain for that win then, as he is now. Given Tom’s competitive fire one can be sure he is not simply interested in going through the motions in heading to Scotland.
The selection process for the American side got a bit more complicated with the sudden self-imposed sabbatical of Dustin Johnson. The talented long hitter has cited personal issues that need his undivided attention and has curtailed his competitive golf involvement for the balance of 2014.
Given all that—here’s a quick assessment of the likely playing members and what Watson will likely do with his three wild-card selections.
Bubba Watson—the reigning Masters champ is leading the point totals and will need to play a more prominent role in the upcoming matches than he has previously. At times the mercurial Bubba can be exasperating in knowing whether he’s on AM or FM. Watson as Captain will need to get his focus and intensity ready for each match.
Jim Furyk—Amazingly the 44-year-old has played consistently for much of the year. The issue? Finishing off tournaments—witness this year’s Canadian Open. Furyk needs to redeem himself for a lack luster Ryder Cup from Medinah two years ago. Can he finish off tough matches under intense Ryder Cup pressure? The jury is leaning towards the “no” side.
Jimmy Walker—Has played consistently well through 2014. The Ryder Cup could prove to be his coming out party and validating his standing as a player of special qualities. How and what way will Watson use him remains to be seen. Walker will need to demonstrate some real grit—a quality few Americans have shown in recent past Ryder Cup play.
Rickie Fowler—Coming into the 2014 season Fowler was more noted for his colorful wardrobe—that’s changed in a big time way. In the first three majors this year, he’s been in serious contention—never finishing below 5th. Nonetheless, Rickie has been absent from the winner’s circle this year and sterling play at The Ryder Cup could prove to be the right springboard for even more success.
Matt Kuchar—Consistent play is Kuchar’s hallmark this year. However, Kuchar has never really broken away from the second tier of premier players and oftentimes when the moments have reached a crescendo, he’s been on the other side of success. Kooch is going to need to be a main force for Team USA—he can no longer hide in the shadows for others to step up.
Jordan Spieth—The 21-year-old is a shining talent who, along with Fowler, represent the newest wave of American talent that is now emerging from the gigantic shadows cast by Woods and Mickelson. The Texan showed major grit in battling Watson at Augusta this past April and he’s got plenty of fire in the belly. It’ll be very interesting if Captain Watson pairs Jordan and Fowler together.
Patrick Reed—After announcing to the world that he should be considered one of the top five players in the world after his win at Doral, Reed has again shown solid form with his recent play in tying for fourth at Firestone last week. Reed, like Fowler and Spieth, is a talented player but the cauldron of Ryder Cup pressure can be suffocating for many. Reed needs to demonstrate that his self-promotion is real when it counts the most.
Jason Dufner—The defending PGA Champ is a true chameleon. Possessing immense talent “The Duf” can be hard to figure. His wherewithal to play at a world class level has been demonstrated, but like others the lack of consistency is often an item. If the American side is intent on winning “The Duf” will need to make his presence known.
On the Bubble …
Zach Johnson—A likely Captain’s choice unless he makes the top nine from his play at Valhalla this week. Johnson is reminiscent of Cory Pavin when he was at his best during Ryder Cup play. Pavin played fearless golf in his matches. What he lacked in height and firepower, his heart and uncanny ability to sink critical putts at the key moments was always a plus. Johnson can do likewise if he’s on his game.
Phil Mickelson—Until Lefty fired his final round 62 at Firestone last week—his lowest score this year—the 2014 season had been one of little consequence. Phil will need to show at Valhalla that one round can be turned into a four-round effort at the PGA this week. A win would be glorious but once again entering the top tier of the leaderboard would make Captain Watson choosing him a no-brainer.
Keegan Bradley/Ryan Moore—The former has played in a Ryder Cup match and won a major championship. The latter has not done either but his play has been equally steady. The PGA could very well determine if both players are picked by Captain Watson. Bradley can be hot and cold at critical times. Moore is a steadier player than Keegan but has not broken through with a win of major note. This week at Valhalla could prove to be pivotal in moving Moore to the highest of levels.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.