Ryder Cup: Five players have clinched spot on USA team
Points for the 2016 Ryder Cup USA team don't officially close until the conclusion of the Barclays on Sunday. But five players -- Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker and Brooks Koepka -- have already mathematically punched their tickets to Hazeltine National.
Of the five that are guaranteed a spot in the top-8 qualifiers for Captain Davis Love III's squad, Koepka (currently ranked No. 5) is the lone Ryder Cup rookie.
Koepka's status was up in the air due to an ankle injury that forced him to miss some time on the PGA Tour this season. The big-hitter played just one time between the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. That was at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he withdrew just 13 holes into the first round because of the right ankle, which also forced him to miss the Open Championship.
Koepka -- wanting a spot on the U.S. team -- played on the heavily taped bum ankle in the PGA Championship at Baltusrol and notched a T4 finish. He followed that up with a T9 the very next week in the Travelers Championship.
In six starts since the Players Championship -- WGC withdrawal aside -- Koepka has finished in the top 10 four times and his worst finish in that stretch was a T13 at the U.S. Open.
The highest finishes in that stretch were runner-up showings in consecutive starts -- a playoff loss at Byron Nelson and a T2 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. Koepka will be a welcome addition to the team. Many felt he was deserving of Captain's Pick consideration under Tom Watson in 2014 after compiling a stellar season on the European Tour. That never came to fruition.
Walker, the 2016 PGA Champion and currently No. 4 in the U.S. standings, will be making his second consecutive Ryder Cup appearance. The six-time PGA Tour winner had been struggling with his game for much of this season -- including a stretch of four missed cuts in seven starts -- but found his game at Baltusrol on his way to his first major victory.
The PGA Championship win made it three straight seasons with at least one win for Walker. In 2014 at Gleneagles, Walker joined Rickie Fowler as the only two players on the American side to play in all five matches. Walker went 1-1-3 in that stretch with his lone victory coming in his singles match over Lee Westwood.
Phil Mickelson, presently No. 3 in points, will be making a record 11th consecutive appearance for the U.S. in the Ryder Cup. Mickelson has been a member of every Ryder Cup team dating back to the 1995 matches at Oak Hill.
Though Mickelson has yet to win since his 2013 Open Championship victory, he has enjoyed a stellar 2015-16 season with six top-10 finishes in 18 starts, highlighted by three runner-up finishes -- most notably falling just short, even with an incredible final-round 65, to Henrik Stenson in the Open Championship at Royal Troon.
While Mickelson's 16-19-6 Ryder Cup record in 41 total matches played leaves something to be desired, his mentoring of players such as Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Keegan Bradley, Brandt Snedeker, Rickie Fowler and more has been invaluable in preparation for team competitions.
Mickelson was also the most vocal in an uncomfortable spot in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. defeat at Gleneagles, stressing that changes needed to be made for future Ryder Cups if the U.S. ever wished to be successful again. While some may have found the timing of such criticisms off-putting, there's no doubt his remarks were taken to heart by decision makers and the process leading up to these 2016 matches has been a very different, far-more organized one from a U.S. perspective -- and that could prove to be Mickelson's enduring Ryder Cup legacy.
Mickelson is focused and determined to pick off a third Ryder Cup win before eventually becoming a Captain (many believe it could happen at Bethpage Black in 2024).
Should the U.S. go on to win at Hazeltine, one would suspect that Spieth will play a major role. As a rookie in 2014, Spieth was one of the few bright spots for the U.S., collecting 2 1/2 points with an overall record of 2-1-1.
Since those matches, Spieth has become a two-time major champion, winning the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open. He had a shot at winning all four majors in 2015 (ultimately finishing T4 in the Open Championship and runner-up at the PGA Championship).
What do you do for an encore after a season like that? For Spieth, you pick off two more wins in 2016 (Hyundai Tournament of Champions and Colonial) and finish runner-up in the Masters (which he should have won were it not for a debacle on the par-3 12th hole in the final round).
When you think Spieth, you think Ryder Cup stalwart for years to come. This will be the second of many.
Finally, there's Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner.
Can you believe this will be just the third Ryder Cup start for Johnson? Johnson is 4-3 in seven career matches.
Only one player on the PGA Tour has been better than Johnson this season and that's world No. 1 Jason Day. Johnson has compiled a remarkable 12 top-10 finishes in just 18 starts. Along with the U.S. Open, he also won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in his very next start.
As we've seen in heartbreakers at several majors and in the drama surrounding his win at Oakmont, Johnson is as resilient a player as you'll find. That is an invaluable quality in match play. There may be no player in golf better at forgetting about what just happened and moving on.
Those are your first five automatic qualifiers for Ryder Cup USA. Come Sunday evening, we'll know three other players who will be joining them at the end of September.