U.S. Ryder Cup spots still on the line

Originally Published: July 21, 2004
By Bob Harig | Special to ESPN.com

Tiger Woods' name was put down in ink from the moment the final putt dropped at the Belfry. Same for Davis Love III and David Toms. Even Phil Mickelson, who had a tough 2003, was a lock for the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup team.

But there are still several spots to be won or lost in the coming weeks, as just four tournaments remain before the team is determined following the PGA Championship.

Where they're playing

This week:
The International
Castle Rock, Colo.
Castle Pines GC (7,594 yards, par 72). Purse:
$5 million
Thursday: 4-6 p.m. (USA)
Friday.: 4-6 p.m. (USA)
Saturday: 3-6 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday: 3-6 p.m. (CBS)
Defending champ:
Davis Love III

This week:
Jamie Farr Classic
Sylvania, Ohio
Highland Meadows GC
(6,365 yards, par 71)
$1.1 million
Friday: 1-3 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Saturday: 2-4 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Sunday: 4-6 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Defending champ:
Se Ri Pak

This week:
3M Championship
Blaine, Minn.
TPC of the Twin Cities (6,909 yards, par 72)
$1.75 million
Friday: 5-7:30 p.m. ET (TGC)
Saturday: 5-7:30 p.m. ET (TGC)
Sunday: 5-7:30 p.m. ET (TGC)
Defending champ:
Wayne Levi

This week:
KLM Open
Hilversum, Netherlands
Hilversumsche GC (6,660, par 70)
Thursday: 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. ET (TGC)
Friday: 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. ET (TGC)
Saturday: 9 a.m.-12 p.m. ET (TGC)
Sunday: 9 a.m.-12 p.m. ET (TGC)
Defending champ:
Maarten Lafeber

This week:
Cox Classic
Omaha, Neb.
Champions Run (7,097 yards, par 72)
Thursday: 1:30-4 p.m. ET (TGC)
Friday: 1:30-4 p.m. ET (TGC)
Saturday: 1:30-4 p.m. ET (TGC)
Sunday: 1:30-4 p.m. ET (TGC)
Defending champ:
Bo Van Pelt

The race continues at this week's U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee -- although not everyone is taking part.

Only two of the current top-10 U.S. players in the Ryder Cup points standings are participating. One is defending champion Kenny Perry, who is fifth behind Woods, Mickelson, Love and Jim Furyk and is all but assured of a spot on the team. Fred Funk, who is ninth, is the other.

So this week presents an excellent opportunity for Jerry Kelly, who is 11th, and Scott Verplank, who is 12th. Jeff Maggert is 10th.

The top 10 players on a three-year points race (qualifying was extended after the 2001 Ryder Cup was postponed) will automatically make the team. Captain Hal Sutton will then have two captain's selections to round out the squad that will take on the Europeans Sept. 17-19 at Oakland Hills Country Club outside of Detroit.

Sutton is charged with bringing the Cup back to the U.S. after a frustrating defeat to the Europeans two years ago, 15 1/2 to 12 1/2, in England.

That defeat, the third in the past four Ryder Cups, led to all kinds of theories as to why the U.S. lost again.

"It is disturbing to me," Sutton said soon after taking the job. "We possess all kinds of talent. I don't know what the missing ingredient is other than we need to become more passionate about it. I think the players are passionate, but they show it in different ways."

One of the players Sutton did not mind singling out was Woods, who has not been as dominant as expected. Woods went 2-2-1 in the matches and is 5-8-2 in three Ryder Cups.

"Tiger parallels his career to Jack Nicklaus, he has got Jack Nicklaus' records right in sight," Sutton said. "Jack Nicklaus had a pretty sterling career in the Ryder Cup (17-8-3). I would like to challenge Tiger to look at Jack Nicklaus' Ryder Cup record and let's go after that one, too.

"I think Jack understood the passion of the Ryder Cup. He understood what it was like to play. Tiger, if not the greatest, is one of the greatest players we have ever seen in the game, and he's going to bring that game out the next time, I am going to assure you."

But you can't put it all on Woods. Not only has the U.S. lost three of the past four, but six of the past nine. And Woods can only play a role in five of the 14 1/2 points needed to win the Cup. And in four of the points, he has a teammate.

That is all part of the dynamics of the next couple of weeks.

Once the 10 players are decided, Sutton then has two captain's selections. Whom will he choose? Does he go with Jay Haas, 50, for leadership and experience? What about British Open champion Todd Hamilton, who just moved to 15th in the standings? If Verplank doesn't make the team on points, does he get chosen, like the last time?

It won't be easy. Players nine through 14 in the standings have not won this year, so it's not as if guys are making strong statements.

Meanwhile in Europe, there was some consternation over the fact that captain Bernhard Langer was not at the British Open. Sutton was there, watching his prospective players while doing television work for ABC-TV. Langer's absence was notable, although the Europeans have a few more weeks to go before their team is picked.

Right now, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Lee Westwood appear to be locks.

Five Things To Watch

Kenny Perry defends his title at the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee, formerly known as the Greater Milwaukee Open. Last year, Perry's victory was his third of the year. Don't be surprised if a few players use the week to sneak up to Whistling Straits, site of the PGA Championship in three weeks.

This week is the equivalent of a major championship for Wisconsin natives Skip Kendall, Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly, who is also battling for a Ryder Cup spot.

The Champions Tour has its second major in three weeks with the Senior British Open at Portrush in Northern Ireland.

Defending champion Tom Watson, who missed last week's British Open with an injury will attempt to play. Also scheduled to play are Bob Charles and Gary Player, who along with Watson, won both the regular and senior British titles.

The LPGA Tour begins a two-week European swing with one of its richest events, the Evian Masters, in France. Juli Inkster is the defending champion of the 2.1-million event. That's a bigger purse than next week's Women's British Open.

Castle Pines Golf Club, in Castle Rock, Colo., is the longest course on the PGA Tour. But that is quite misleading. At 7,594 yards, it is just four yards longer than next week's PGA Championship venue, Whistling Straits. But the high altitude of Colorado more than takes care of that. In fact, the course plays some 400-600 yards shorter because of the mountains. The ball seemingly travels forever in the thin air.

The tournament has been played at the same venue since 1986, when Ken Green captured the inaugural event that has always used some form of the modified Stableford Scoring System, where points are awarded for eagles and birdies, no points are given for pars, and points are subtracted for bogeys, doubles and worse.

Davis Love III
Love III
Davis Love is the forgotten man this year on the PGA Tour. The defending champion at this week's International has been unable to match the success of a year ago, when he won four times and was a serious candidate for PGA Tour Player of the Year honors.

This year, Love has failed to get it done, although he's had numerous high finishes and has earned more than $2.6-million. He quietly tied for fifth last month at the British Open, but never seriously threatened. He was tied for sixth at the Masters and finished second to Tiger Woods at the Match Play Championship.

There is still time to make some noise. But Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen have managed to steal the spotlight this year. So far.

Bob HarigGot a question about the PGA Tour? Ask ESPN.com golf writer Bob Harig, who will answer your inquiries in each installment of This Week in Golf.

Q. Do you find it ironic the way Phil Mickelson has been treated of late? He won the Masters and then arguably blew the lead at both the U.S. and British Open. Before the Masters win, the media would have shelled Phil, but now his mishaps are called contending instead of choking. What gives?
Brent Golleher
Baton Rouge, La.

A. Mickelson earned himself a free pass when he won the Masters, especially the way he did so. After saying for so long that he would never change his style, Mickelson played smart, then birdied five of the last seven with a dramatic birdie putt to win his first major. No doubt, had he lost the U.S. Open and British Open without having won the Masters, the scrutiny would have been different. However, if similar close calls continue, you can bet he will be criticized instead of praised.

Q. Will Hal Sutton feel pressure from his regular PGA Tour buddies to pick someone who has been a regular on the PGA Tour over Todd Hamilton?
Jeff Mars
San Antonio, Texas

A. Sutton, the U.S. Ryder Cup team captain, is unlikely to feel any pressure at all. Sutton is his own man, a no-nonsense type, who will make his two captain's selections without much input from anyone who is not already very close to him.

Q. Why do I keep hearing TV commentators say that such and such a course has been "toughened" by turning a par 5 into a par 4? Par is a relative number. Unless Stableford scoring is the wave of the future, how does lowering par on a given hole make it more difficult? Would giving 2 points for a goal make soccer easier? I don't get it, am I missing something?
Mike Cresante
Manassas, Va.

A. There is a mindset involved when a hole is a long par-4 compared to a short par-5. Yes, a 4 is a 4 either way. But one is a par, the other is a birdie, and it seems to make a difference to the players, who are so fixed on being under par. You are right, it doesn't necessarily make the hole more difficult, except in the case of a hole that was originally designed to play as a par-5. That usually means the green was built for short approach shots, not long second shots.

Q. What does Fred Couples need to do to be picked by Hal Sutton? Would a top 10 at the PGA do the trick?
Boston, Mass.

A. It is unlikely that Couples would be picked, even with a victory. He is not in the top 25 in the points standings, and that's despite three top-10 finishes in his past five tournaments. But Couples has not played since the U.S. Open, where he missed the cut, and withdrew from the British Open due to a bad back. There are too many players ahead of Couples who would be considered more worthy.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com