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Ryder Cup: Locks, bubble boys and potential picks for USA

U.S.-born players hoping to play at Hazeltine National in the 2016 Ryder Cup in September had better buckle up, because things are about to move faster than Dustin Johnson's ball speed.

You want to talk about a ridiculous stretch where a lot is going to happen in terms of shaping Ryder Cup USA? Look no further than these next three weeks.

Here's why...

Players receive double points in major championships (two points for every dollar earned). Over the next three weeks, beginning with this week's Open Championship at Royal Troon, two majors will be contested. The PGA Championship at Baltusrol, starting July 28, is the last opportunity this season for double points.

However, unlike years past, the PGA Championship is not the last chance for U.S. players to obtain Ryder Cup points. Traditionally, Ryder Cup USA points have closed at the PGA Championship, meaning the automatic qualifiers (some years 10 players, some years nine and this year eight) have been determined at the season's final major with the remaining Captain's Picks made a few weeks later. That's not the case this year.

With the schedule shuffled due to golf's inclusion in the Olympics, it was decided that closing points at the PGA Championship would just be too soon. Instead, players will have until the end of August to accumulate points. Points will officially close on August 28 at the conclusion of the Barclays -- the first event of the PGA Tour Playoffs for the FedExCup.

That's four more post-PGA Championship point-getting chances.

And for players who haven't automatically qualified, but were painfully close, there's even more good news. Ryder Cup USA Captain Davis Love III will not make all of his Captain's Picks at once.

Instead, Love will announce three of his four Captain's Picks after the conclusion of the BMW Championship, which is scheduled to end on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016. 

His fourth and final pick will be made Sunday evening after the conclusion of the TOUR Championship, Sept. 25, 2016 -- just five days before the matches tee off. This is great for Love, Ryder Cup USA and one lucky player, who will have until the very last minute to impress.

If you remember, Billy Horschel had a slow start to the 2014 season. He was way down the Ryder Cup USA points list when it closed at the PGA Championship that year and, frankly, not even on the radar for Captain's Pick consideration.

After missing the cut in the Playoffs opener -- The Barclays -- Horschel got red-hot. He tied for second at the Deutsche Bank Championship, then won the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship to capture the FedExCup. 

As special as it was, it was too little too late in Ryder Cup terms. 

The new format will allow Love to consider a player like Horschel who gets hot late.

Here's a look at how the 2016 Ryder Cup USA team is shaping up...

THE LOCKS

So far, we only have two locks -- mathematically -- for Ryder Cup USA. Those two players would be Dustin Johnson (No. 1, 11,062.873 points through the WGC-Bridgeston Invitational) and Jordan Spieth (No. 2, 10,731.365 points through the WGC-Bridgeston Invitational).

Johnson overtook Spieth for the No. 1 spot in the standings with his back-to-back victories in the U.S. Open and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Spieth had been No. 1 in the standings dating all the way back to his victory in the 2015 Masters (which was the first opportunity for players to collect points for the 2016 Ryder Cup).

The matches at Hazeltine will mark the third Ryder Cup appearance for Johnson, who sports a 4-3 record in seven matches played.

For Spieth, it will be his second Ryder Cup appearance following a 2-1-1 showing at Gleneagles in 2014.

THE PROBABLES

Following the U.S. Open at Oakmont, with two majors in the books for 2016, Love said, "Now it's getting a little more solid at the top. I think when I looked at the list today, your brain kicks into pairings after two majors. You can start thinking about that -- who's going to match up here? It's getting more solid."

Love specifically noted that the top 5 players after the U.S. Open, usually, would make the team in points. Using that logic, here are the three players who were inside that top 5 (besides Spieth and Johnson) after the U.S. Open:

3. Brooks Koepka
4. Phil Mickelson
5. Zach Johnson

The only player to sneak into the top 5 since the conclusion of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational is Bubba Watson. Watson is the current No. 5 with Koepka having slipped to No. 6 heading into this week.

It's almost impossible to envision this Ryder Cup USA team without the services of Mickelson, Z. Johnson, or Watson. Mickelson has played in more Ryder Cups than any American in history (10 through 2014), while Z. Johnson is the 2015 Open Champion and Watson has played in every Ryder Cup since 2014. Barring something crazy, those three players will be at Hazeltine -- if not as automatic qualifiers than certainly, one would think, as Captain's Picks.

BUBBLE BOYS

Here are the current players ranked No. 6-12:

6. Brooks Koepka
7. Matt Kuchar
8. Brandt Snedeker

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9. Rickie Fowler
10. Patrick Reed
11. Scott Piercy
12. J.B. Holmes

Jumping into Captain Love's brain here for a second, but I don't think he'd disappointed in the least if things stayed the way they are now and he used his four picks on Fowler, Reed, Piercy and Holmes. 

Things, however, will not stay the way they are right now. No chance of that with two majors and double points on the line at both in the next three weeks. The players listed above are either going to have two good weeks, or one great week at the Open and PGA to lock up their respective spots. And, if not, they'll have to play lights out until August 28.

CAPTAIN'S PICKS

Just like he did in 2012 at Medinah, Love will once again have the luxury of four Captain's Picks. 

While the easy way out for Captains would be to take the next chronically listed players in the standings as their picks, it rarely shakes out that way (far more common when Captains had just two picks).

In 2012, Love used his picks on No. 12 Steve Stricker, No. 23 Jim Furyk, No. 13 Brandt Snedeker and No. 15 Dustin Johnson.

What will he do this time around? It's impossible to guess with so many points still left to collect. Assuming points closed today though, here's our best guess:

1. Fowler would be a lock at No. 9. Aside from missing it by one spot on merit, Fowler is undoubtedly establishing himself as a leader in these team competitions and someone we expect to see for years to come. If he isn't in automatically, he's a pick.

2. Reed at No. 10. Similar to Fowler, Reed is just on the outside looking in. If you're Love, you can't overlook the passion, the intensity and the play Reed brought to Ryder Cup USA in his 2014 debut where he went 3-0-1 in an otherwise forgettable week for the U.S. He's the U.S. answer to the madman that is Ian Poulter during Ryder Cup week.

3. Jason Dufner. Currently No. 16 in the standings, Dufner -- known for his deadpan persona -- has been vocal to Love about his desire to make this Ryder Cup team. It seems all the guys from that 2012 team want a second chance to win it for Love. Those 2012 matches were Dufner's only crack at the Ryder Cup thus far and he went 3-1-0, something Love certainly will remember when it's time to make some tough decisions.

4. Jim Furyk. Currently No. 19, Furyk can't be overlooked. Due to injury, his is a much smaller sample size when it comes to collecting points. A T2 at Oakmont in the U.S. Open a few weeks ago (the same finish he had at Oakmont in 2007) certainly didn't hurt his cause. He's already a Vice Captain of Love's for Hazeltine. 

Love had this to say about Furyk after the U.S. Open: "It'll be great to have Jim as a Vice Captain. As a player on the team, I'd think it would be even better to have him as a partner. He's given some of the best little night-time speeches and rallies the guys so well when we need them to go out and do something. He's a proven leader."

Furyk's nine Ryder Cup appearances are second only to Mickelson in U.S. history.