FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The race for the cup has rarely been this intense after just one playoff event.
Only it’s not the FedEx Cup.
At the moment, that’s only meaningful to those who risked going home after one week. Sure, it was significant for Nick Watney to win The Barclays because it assures he will be at East Lake for the Tour Championship with a legitimate shot at the $10 million prize. But there are rarely surprises at the opening playoff event. Watney (No. 49) was only the second Barclays winner who was not already in the top 30.
Right now, it’s all about the Ryder Cup.
There are no points to tally. There are no charts to show how each birdie and bogey will help or hurt someone’s chances. This is all speculation. Watney chose the right word when he said his three-shot win at Bethpage Black against the strongest, full field this side of a major was all about getting into the conversation.
Let the chatter begin.
Europe was the first to fill out its 12-man team. Martin Kaymer earned the last spot on the team by not playing the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles and securing 10th place only when Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium failed to finish first or second. Jose Maria Olazabal, in a decision that surprised no one, selected Colsaerts and Ian Poulter.
It was the second time in three Ryder Cups that Poulter had to rely on being a pick, only there was no cause for panic. The only thing that made him uptight at Bethpage Black was the baked greens that sent him into a Twitter rage.
Few outside Ireland can protest those picks. There was plenty of gossip about a decade-only squabble between Olazabal and Padraig Harrington, but it would have been tough to take the Irishman for a second straight cup when he hasn’t beaten meaningful competition in four years.
U.S. captain Davis Love III might have had an easier time under the old system of announcing his two picks right after the PGA Championship, the final qualifying event.
In a move that was overdue, former captain Paul Azinger orchestrated a change in 2008 that gave the Americans four picks instead of two, and allowed the captain an additional three weeks to make his decision. The idea was to get the players on top of their games. That essentially turned the first couple of FedEx Cup playoff events into an audition. And now, it’s a larger cast than Love might have imagined.
What a difference from two years ago, when no one really inspired U.S. captain Corey Pavin. He took Tiger Woods, an easy choice for no other reason than he’s Tiger Woods. He settled on two veterans in Zach Johnson and Stewart Cink, and Rickie Fowler by default. No one else distinguished himself as an obvious pick. Fowler not only was the first PGA Tour rookie to make the team, he had yet to win a tournament as a pro.
It’s more complicated this time.
Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk are believed to be locks to be taken. Stricker not only is one of the best putters in golf, he and Woods have a 6-2 record as a team in the last three Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup matches. Furyk hasn’t won since the 2010 Tour Championship, when he captured the FedEx Cup, but he gave himself great chances at the U.S. Open and at the Bridgestone Invitational, doomed by a snap-hook off the 16th tee at Olympic and a double bogey on the 18th hole at Firestone.
He not only has played on every U.S. team since 1997, he has qualified for them all. Consider this a lifetime achievement pick, and not a bad one. A year ago, he narrowly qualified for the Presidents Cup, and then went 5-0 at Royal Melbourne. Only one of his matches reached the 18th hole.
That essentially leaves Love having to look at five players — maybe more — for two spots.
Watney was enduring a lost season until winning The Barclays. That doesn’t make him a frontrunner, but he is a big blip on the radar at the very least. Brandt Snedeker already was under consideration — a winner at Torrey Pines, a contender at the British Open and a guy who can putt. He showed that at The Barclays, making a 15-footer for par on the 17th and a birdie putt from about that length on the 18th to finish alone in second.
Dustin Johnson, who has won every year since his rookie season in 2008, tied for third at Barclays. His sheer power and talent is difficult to ignore. Fowler showed up on the leaderboard until Saturday, when Bethpage Black became Bethpage Brown and sent scores soaring. Not to be forgotten is Hunter Mahan, who was poised to make the team on his own until he finished toward the bottom of the pack at Firestone and missed the cut at the PGA Championship and the Barclays.
The list can get even longer depending on the Deutsche Bank Championship, especially if Bo Van Pelt or someone like Bill Haas were to win.
No one will be under greater pressure than Mahan. He won twice this year, but has only one top 10 over the last five months. And he is the opposite of Furyk, who has qualified for every team. Mahan has been a captain’s pick twice for the Presidents Cup, once for the Ryder Cup.
Johnson is another guy who can’t afford a letdown in Boston. For all his swagger and ability, he can be a square peg in the round hole of team matches. He did not partner well with Phil Mickelson at Celtic Manor or Woods at Royal Melbourne. If the Ryder Cup were 28 singles matches, he would be an obvious choice.
The audition for the final spots starts Friday and ends Labor Day, which is fitting. Love has some serious work ahead of him.
As for the FedEx Cup?
Even for a bunch of millionaires, $10 million still gets their attention, and it will before the playoffs are over. For now, what matters is an event that pays nothing at all.