Lots at stake for Ryder Cup hopefuls at 90th PGA Championship

8/6/2008 - Golf

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- The decision looms, and it is a harder one than Paul Azinger envisioned. The U.S. Ryder Cup team captain sees his team shaping up this week at the PGA Championship, where the eight automatic qualifiers will be decided.

Then comes the difficult part -- picking four more, although at least he has a little extra time.

"If I just take the top eight guys that are not in the top eight [automatic spots] right now and go down to 16, there's a lot of really quality options there for me," Azinger said Wednesday at Oakland Hills Country Club. "I always felt like our four picks are better than two because there would be two less guys I would disappoint. Now, as I look at it, it's actually becoming difficult."

Before Azinger took the job in late 2006, he lobbied the PGA of America to make changes to its Ryder Cup selection formula. The U.S. team has endured two straight lopsided defeats, has lost three in a row and five of the past six Ryder Cups.

Azinger sought and a received a new process in which points were limited to events this year -- along with last year's majors -- and based on money earnings. Players receive one point for every $1,000 earned, and this week's PGA Championship offers double points. He also got four captain's picks instead of two.

With points leader Tiger Woods out after knee surgery, the top eight for the U.S. team are currently Stewart Cink, Phil Mickelson, Kenny Perry, Jim Furyk, Anthony Kim, Justin Leonard, Boo Weekley and Steve Stricker. Weekley and Stricker could get bumped out depending on what happens at the PGA.

"One more good shot here to get in the top eight is what we are all looking to do," said U.S. Open runner-up Rocco Mediate, who is 12th in the standings, less than 400 points behind Stricker. "And then there's a couple more events after to see what [Azinger] thinks, which is a great way to do it. I think he made a good move in changing [the system], instead of having all the picks Monday morning. He'll watch a few weeks and see who is really playing better."

In addition to getting double the captain's picks, Azinger had the selection moved back from the day after the PGA Championship to three weeks later, on Sept. 2. That means players have three more tournaments, including two FedEx Cup playoff events, to make an impression.

"That three weeks is huge," Azinger said. "Europe's team is not announced until then, why should ours be?"

The European team has 10 automatic qualifiers who will be determined on Aug. 31 at the conclusion of the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, Scotland. Captain Nick Faldo will then make his two at-large selections that day. Azinger will name his four players on Sept. 2 in New York City.

On the outside looking in at the moment among the Americans are Woody Austin, Hunter Mahan, D.J. Trahan, Mediate, Sean O'Hair, Zach Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and J.B. Holmes. Of that group, only Trahan, O'Hair and Holmes have won tournaments this year on the PGA Tour.

"As much as I don't want to think about it, I can't help but think about it," said Austin, who starred on the U.S. Presidents Cup team last year at Royal Montreal and is about 180 points behind Stricker. "Each day I'm tracking where I stand and that's not good."

And it probably won't do much good to try to track it this weekend. The points are volatile and the standings depend so much on what the players around you do. For example, if Stricker were to miss the cut, he would earn no points, and Austin would have to finish in the neighborhood of 15th place, which would earn him about $90,000 -- or 180 points. But if Stricker makes the cut, it changes things. And what if somebody behind Austin finishes higher?

The European side also offers some intriguing subplots. At the moment, England's Ian Poulter and countryman Paul Casey, Scotland's Colin Montgomerie and Spain's Sergio Garcia are not automatic qualifiers. And England's Justin Rose is barely hanging on. Europe takes the top five off a world points listed based on the world ranking, and then five more from the European money list who are not in the top five in points.

"There's no point looking at it anymore," said Poulter, who finished second to Padraig Harrington at the British Open. "I understand and I understand that these four days coming up are going to be very important. If you keep thinking about it, it will take its toll. If I play well, I will be on the side. There's just been an awful lot of talk about it and I just have to go out there and play well and try to enjoy myself."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.