Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR
By Joel Beall
Six weeks remain for aspiring Yankees to qualify for the 2019 Presidents Cup. The top eight players in the United States standings following the BMW Championship will earn automatic bids, with the remaining four slots filled by captain Tiger Woods at a soon-to-be-announced date. Amazingly, there’s a chance half of 2017’s juggernaut team—one that nearly ended the event on Saturday at Liberty National—does not return for the biennial match. As the sport heads to the season’s final major at the Open Championship next week, here is the bubble watch for the U.S. Presidents Cup roster.
LOCKS: Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas, Matt Kuchar, Bryson DeChambeau
That’s a formidable first four for the red, white and blue. The only real question mark is Thomas. Since injuring his wrist at the Honda Classic, the 2017 PGA champ’s game has been erratic, failing to make the weekend in three of the last six events (including missed cuts at the Memorial and U.S. Open). For his part, Thomas says the wrist is a non-issue, simply needing more starts to develop a rhythm. He’s also been an American assassin at these events, winning 3.5 points at the 2017 Presidents Cup and a team-best four points at the Ryder Cup last fall.
Whatever lumps Kuchar has taken outside the ropes haven’t affected his play inside them, with two wins and eight top 10s in 17 outings. The 41-year-old also has four Presidents Cup appearances, not insignificant given a projected lack of veterans on the roster. As for DeChambeau, it will be interesting to see how he bounces back from a disastrous Ryder Cup debut. Officials see him as a future cog for Team USA; racking up quality matches at Royal Melbourne won’t hurt his case for Whistling Straits in 2020.
NOT A LOCK, BUT C’MON: Tiger Woods
For the briefest of moments, set aside the emotions and drama and everything else wrapped around his Augusta triumph. Stripped to its core, Tiger Woods won the most important golf tournament of the season. That alone merits inclusion.
Conversely, those sentiments are very much a part of Woods’ package, as is his standing in the game. To think tour officials would allow a healthy Tiger to pass on this borders on absurd. That Woods, by all accounts, is up to the challenge almost makes this a moot point.
The only way this doesn’t come to fruition is if Woods suffers a setback or undergoes a clean-up operation of some sort. Which would subtract substantial juice from this event. But lest this notion bums you out…we did mention Woods WON THE MASTERS AT 43, right?
SHOULD BE IN: Patrick Cantlay, Gary Woodland, Rickie Fowler
Even if Woodland falls out of the top eight, it’s hard to envision the U.S. Open champ not getting a nod. Especially since his year hasn’t been on a one-hit wonder, boasting two runner-ups and ranking eighth in strokes gained/tee-to-green. Ditto Cantlay, who’s second on tour in strokes gained.
The only player of real interest is Fowler. He has his detractors, but they are not in the U.S. locker room. Fowler’s ninth in points, has six professional U.S. team appearances under his belt, and perhaps just as importantly, is beloved by sponsors. Something would have to go seriously sideways for Fowler not to be in Australia.
At this point it’s worth noting the team is up to 10 players, three of which would be rookies in Schauffele, Cantlay and Woodland (with DeChambeau making his Presidents Cup debut). That could spell trouble for some young guns on the ropes. More on this in a moment.
WORK LEFT TO DO: Tony Finau, Webb Simpson, Kevin Kisner, Brandt Snedeker
There’s a beast in the mist, lurking to grab one of the captain’s picks (see below). If this group wants to secure a spot, they need a victory.
Especially Finau. His talent and power are undeniable, his character as strong as they come. Nevertheless, as hard as it is to win on tour, it’s time Big Tone starting collecting hardware. He’s had an interesting year—just three top 10s, but two of them are runner-ups and the other a T-5 at the Masters—and ranks 44th in strokes gained after ranking seventh in the category in 2018. Finau is the best bet to make it from this group, but a couple high finishes will save him in case a dark horse makes a late run.
THE DILEMMA: Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed
Spieth is 30th in the standings. Unless he captures the claret jug, there’s no argument his play (74th in strokes gained, 72nd in FedEx Cup points) warrants a spot. He’s also made six straight appearances for Team USA, and despite the reputation as a shaky putter, he’s been one of the best short-game players in golf this year (sixth in sg/putting, first in putts over 25 feet). Similar to the Fowler stipulation, Spieth’s popularity—with the team, and around the world— cannot be overstated. Case in point: Phil Mickelson, who was 30th in the 2015 Presidents Cup standings yet still earned a captain’s pick. Outlandish as it may seem, Spieth is very much in the conversation.
The Reed case is not as complex. His T-5 in Detroit was his first top-25 finish since February, and the stats don’t paint the profile of one nearing a breakthrough. The off-the-course blasting after last year’s Ryder Cup hasn’t conferred Reed many backers. Still, the former Masters champ has been a tour de force for Team USA, and should he get hot in the next two months, don’t be shocked to see his name among the captain’s pick candidates.
LONGSHOTS: Chez Reavie, Charles Howell III, Kevin Na, Billy Horschel
They are just outside the fire on the standings, but that doesn’t properly convey their prospects. The unfortunate truth is the best 12 players aren’t picked, with marketability and politics a central factor in roster decisions. That Howell is the only one in the group that has a professional Team USA appearance doesn’t help.
Which is a shame, as most of the locks, save Kuchar, are bombers. Make no mistake, no matter the lineup, the Americans will be heavy favourites against the Internationals. Yet, from an aesthetic and creative vantage point, watching the same style of attack does get monotonous. The presence of a few shotmakers and scramblers would be a welcomed addition, at least to the hardcore golf fan. Something Reavie, Howell, Na and Horschel would undoubtedly provide.
WILDCARD: Phil Mickelson
Mickelson is 14th in the standings thanks to a win at the AT&T Pebble Beach and T-2 at the Desert Classic. He also remains an authoritative figure in the locker room, and his Team USA appearance streak (playing on every Ryder and Presidents Cup team since 1994), while not only remarkable, is a big selling point on the experience front.
On the other end of the spectrum. . . since that Pebble victory, his game has been a mess, missing seven of his last 10 cuts (which includes an early exit at the WGC-Match Play) and finishing outside the top 50 at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open. The stats underline the struggle, as Mickelson ranks 126th in strokes gained, 138th in sg/off-the-tee and 145th in sg/putting. Furthermore, Mickelson looked gassed at last year’s Ryder Cup, losing 5&4 with Dechambeau to Sergio Garcia and Alex Noren and falling 4&2 to Francesco Molinari.
Mickelson’s battle against Father Time has been admirable, and one that isn’t over. Alas, in his game’s current form, picking Phil is a pick strictly out of ceremony.
REQUISITE “WHAT ABOUT MATTHEW WOLFF?” ADDENDUM: Matthew Wolff
With a shoutout to Collin Morikawa, who’s actually been better, and more consistent, than Wolff through their first handful of tour starts.
On the surface, this seems like slavery to recency bias (or in Wolff’s case, hype). And, admittedly, the odds of Wolff or Morikawa getting picked are slim, especially with a host of 28-and-under players already on the team.
The concept, though, is sound on multiple levels. It would be a reward for Wolff’s entire 2019 portfolio—the NCAA-record scoring average, six wins and NCAA individual title—rather than simply the 3M Open. (Think of the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” picking Duke’s Christian Laettner.) Moreover, if officials think the 20-year-old is the real deal, getting Wolff reps at the Presidents Cup would be a nice conduit into Ryder Cup consideration next fall.
But more importantly, the Presidents Cup, at its roots, is an exhibition. Bringing in golf’s hottest commodity to an event often short on hype—especially this year with a December date—is a dream come true. Yes, these functions can be popularity contests. Sometimes, for the best reasons.