Aug
30
2012
Last chance dance for American Ryder Cup hopefuls before The Decision
By Stephanie Wei under FedEx Cup

Surprise? Shock? Both?

Similar to last week at The Barclays, the first of four legs in the FedExCup playoffs, there’s more than just a tournament to follow at the Deutsche Bank Championship, which includes the top-100 finishers in points — there’s the race for the top 70 to advance to the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick.

For all the pomp and money (and more) that’s on the line, the atmosphere has certainly been relaxed. In fact, I can’t remember the last time vibe felt this relaxed. May? April? I know it’s early in the week and the tournament has started, and I expect tensions to mount as the week progresses, but so far, it’s not exactly what you might expect for the pressure-packed PLAYOFFS.

For the top players, like Rory McIlroy and Jason Dufner (who is so stressed that he skipped The Barclays), there’s almost zero pressure. It’s the end of the year — the majors are over and they’re already locked into making it to the Tour Championship. For many of the others, they’re just happy to be there. They’ve made enough money to secure their Tour card for the 2013 season. They’re playing for massive purses every week and they have a shot to qualify for the Tour Championship — which, if you can believe it, comes along with more than the chance to win the $10 million bonus.

For some guys, like Greg Chalmers and Brian Harman, their top-ten finishes at The Barclays earned them enough points to move up high enough that it’d be virtually impossible for them to drop outside of the top 70. And for a few, like Graham DeLaet, they’re extra happy to be in the field.

“We’re playing for $8 million and there are 100 players in the field,” said Robert Garrigus, who is 32nd in FEC points with $2.1 million in earnings already in 2012. “It’s pretty lax, if you ask me.”

Charles Howell III is ranked 68th in FEC points, so he’s a bubble boy. He should feel the heat as much as anyone to advance, right? (I didn’t have the list memorized, so I was almost surprised when he told me his standing after we’d been just chitchatting for at least five minutes about more important things than golf, like the RNC convention and the upcoming presidential election.) Naw. He said there’s already enough pressure and stuff to think about that he doesn’t see the point of adding more than any other given week.

Life is good.

******

All that said, there are six or seven guys in the field who have another component that is impossible to ignore. This is the last chance to impress U.S. Ryder Cup team captain Davis Love III before The Decision — where he announces his four wildcard picks on Tuesday morning, after the Deutsche Bank Championship’s Monday finish (due to the long weekend, this event is traditionally held Friday-Monday).

When I prudently approached Hunter Mahan on Thursday afternoon to ask him about the added pressure and the anticipation, he was much more relaxed than I expected — it was business as usual — and he didn’t waste time cracking a joke (phew).

“Yep, The Decision, it’s like Lebron James, Part Two,” he quipped.

Mahan, who came just short of qualifying on points despite two wins this season, including the WGC-Accenture Match Play, is believed to be one of the seven leading candidates for the four remaining wildcard picks.

The other candidates in the conversation have been Brandt Snedeker, who won early in the season, leads the Tour is the Strokes Gained Putting stat and finished second last week; Steve Stricker, who is essentially a lock as Tiger’s designated partner, and is a steady veteran and solid putter; Jim Furyk, who endured tough losses at the U.S. Open and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational but also a steady veteran that has been consistent all year; Rickie Fowler, who was a captain’s pick in 2010 and secured his first PGA Tour victory at Quail Hollow in May; Dustin Johnson, who won in Memphis in June and rallied to finish T3 at The Barclays, and Nick Watney, who had a forgettable season until he won last week.

Good news is Captain Love has plenty of options. Bad news is he has to pick four out of the seven (and gently let down three guys on Monday night).

For the most part, Love has kept his cards close to his chest. At his press conference at the PGA Championship, he basically said that Stricker would get the nod because there’s a guy on the team that pairs well with him (Tiger). He’s also given indication that he wanted to go straight off the points standings — or as close as possible — to avoid controversy, which is his M.O. If you know Davis, then you know he’s not going to throw a curve ball. He’ll likely go with the “safe” and “logical” choices, which favors Stricker (again) and Furyk.

There are “politics” involved. He can’t leave off the veterans, right? That’s justifiable for a relatively “young” and inexperienced American team.

Snedeker is a member of the “Sea Island Mafia” and shares the same management team as Love. Usually, you’d expect that to help Brandt, but in this case it kind of works against Snedeker because Love favors the “politically correct” move. He wouldn’t want the slightest hint of favoritism to taint his decision and captaincy. Brandt’s fine play at The Barclays helped his cause, but he’ll need another top finish to earn a spot.

Earlier this week, one member of the U.S. team seemed utterly baffled by the idea that the best putter on Tour (Snedeker) was not a lock as one of the four picks already.

I know I emphasized the relaxed vibe at TPC Boston, but I’m also stressing there are exceptions, particularly when it comes to the American RC hopefuls. On Wednesday Dustin was grinding as hard as I’ve seen — he definitely had his game face on.

“Of course I’m thinking about it because I want to make the team,” said Johnson after he finished tinkering with his 3-wood in the TaylorMade truck (he was making it heavier). “I was talking to Davis last week and it’s hard, but he said, ‘Go play golf and have fun,’ which is what I try to do every week, but you’re still thinking about it.”

Johnson said the powers-that-be would take into account the fact he missed three months due to injury.

“I think I’ve already done (what I can) with not just (finishing T3) last week, but all year,” he said, when I asked what he needed to do to make an indisputable case for himself. “A good, solid week here would help.”

Fowler has seemed less stressed than others in general, but that might just be his personality. He also pointed out to me that he’d been through a similar situation two years ago (when Corey Pavin picked him during Fowler’s rookie season) and perhaps he was calmer because he knew what to expect. He also has youth on his side and doesn’t have to worry about the number of chances he has running out.

“I definitely want to be deserving of a spot,” said Rickie on his way to the range after playing in the pro-am on Thursday. “If I felt like I wasn’t playing well enough or wasn’t on top of my game, I’d tell Davis that, but I’ve been swinging well. Just had a couple of tough breaks last week (T24). It’s just the way golf is, but I’m looking forward to playing well this week.

“I’ve had a lot of success on teams — two Walker Cups (as an amateur). I obviously didn’t win a bunch of points two years ago on the Ryder Cup, but I made some good putts when it counted.

“Making the team would be awesome, but if I don’t, I’m looking at it, like it’s not my last one. That makes it easier on me, being as young as I am. I don’t have to think about my chances are running out. I’m going to have a lot of opportunities.”

Team chemistry is always important and Fowler is easy-going and gets along with everyone, but if he has one specialty, it might be his expertise when it comes to babysitting Bubba Watson, who qualified second in the points standings.

“I’m probably one of the best babysitters for Bubba,” joked Rickie. “Well, Caleb (Bubba’s six-month-year-old inafnt) is starting to babysit Bubba every once in a while. He’s getting there. I’m only second to Angie in that category, but I’m making the top five for sure.”

Seriously speaking, Fowler considers himself a “rover,” which could give Davis some flexibility in the pairings. At the 2010 Ryder Cup, there was a timing issue, where it sounded like someone couldn’t play with someone or it wasn’t an ideal situation. Fowler had played in a practice round with Furyk that week, but they hadn’t actually played together like they would normally if they expected to be partners.

“Just the pairings — the way we had to do something the night before — Corey asked me if I was okay playing with Jim and I said, ‘Sure, let’s do it,’ said Rickie. “I feel like I can be thrown around a little, which might help my cause, but you never know what they’re picking (based) on.”

Meanwhile, as I mentioned, I expected Mahan to be more tense than he was — just because he hasn’t had the best summer in the world (and I’m speculating, but it that might have had something to do with wanting to make the Ryder Cup so badly). Since finishing T8 at the AT&T National in July, Mahan placed T19 at the Open Championship and then has had several forgettable tournaments, including missed cuts at the PGA Championship and The Barclays.

Still, it’s baffling that a guy who has won twice this year didn’t make the team automatically.

“The way the points work, they’re weighted so heavily for majors this year and last year,” said Mahan, “so if you don’t play well in the majors, it’s going to be tough to make it.

Like the others, inevitably, it’s been on his mind.

“It’s hard not to think about it,” he said on his way to the range after lunch and the morning-pro-am on Thursday afternoon. “I’ve been trying not to think about it, but I think I need to embrace it — get excited about the fact that I still have an opportunity to make the team. That’s what I’m trying to do.

“I don’t want to spend energy trying to push it out of my head or not think about it and relax. It gives you an edge sometimes because you’re playing for something other than your own score. You’re trying to be a part of a team. I want to be a part of the team because it’s so much fun and an honor to do it, but it’s not going to ruin my year or change my life.”

Mahan acknowledged he hasn’t had the results he’d hope for lately.

“I’m not scoring as well as I’d like to,” he said. It’s frustrating. You start thinking too much and not enough about certain things. You have to take a step back and just get back to playing good golf and hitting some good shots and go from there.”

Easier said than done, of course.

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