And then there were four. U.S. Ryder Cup captain’s picks, that is. Or realistically, maybe it’s two.
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk said on Monday the door was wide open for candidates to seize any one of the four wild-card spots that he has available in the coming weeks. He’ll name three picks on Sept. 4, and his last pick six days later. But it’s difficult to fathom that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will not have playing roles on the team that ventures to Paris to take on Europe at the 42nd Ryder Cup Sept. 28-30.
Furyk, a nine-time Ryder Cup competitor, played side by side with Woods on seven teams and with Mickelson on nine. He has been wisely coy in discussing the direction he will follow in rounding out the team, and said he remains open to adding Ryder Cup rookies since he currently has only one, 2017 PGA champion Justin Thomas. But as the U.S. tries to win a Ryder Cup on foreign soil for the first time in 25 years, experience could play a key role.
And no modern-day players have more than Tiger and Phil.
Woods, 42, has been sensational in the last two majors of the season. He held the lead with eight holes to play at the Open Championship at Carnoustie, and last weekend pushed eventual champion Brooks Koepka to the very end at the PGA Championship at Bellerive. Koepka won by two, but not before Woods put on an incredible show, shooting the day’s low round (64) despite not hitting a fairway on his opening nine.
Woods jumped from 20th to 11th in Ryder Cup points with his runner-up finish. Woods already has signed on to serve as a vice-captain to Furyk, but that easily could transition into a playing role. Woods will be able to lead from either position.
“He serves that role in either direction,” Furyk said. “So the value, he's priceless, to be honest with you. He's been really a big help to our captains in both 2016 (Ryder Cup) and 2017 (Presidents Cup) from a strategy perspective, from a personnel (standpoint), personalities, and also really serving on the golf course. I mean, walking with players. I think it's been a big boost having the best player maybe to ever live following your group and being there for support.”
We didn’t know what to expect from Woods this season as he tried to rebound from a fourth back surgery. But his second-place showing at the PGA marked the seventh time this season he has finished 12th or better.
Mickelson, 48, entered Bellerive at 10th in the points standings and missed the cut. He’s looking to make his 12th Ryder Cup team, and this is the first time that Mickelson will have to rely on a captain’s pick to do it. He won for the first time in nearly five years earlier this season (WGC-Mexico), and it has not been lost on Furyk that Mickelson has had a strong campaign with the putter. In strokes gained: putting, only Jason Day ranks ahead of Mickelson. Mickelson also ranks sixth on Tour in birdie average (4.34 per round).
Woods rose from 49th to 20th in the season-long FedEx Cup points race with his showing at Bellerive, so he and Mickelson (10th in points) are in good position for the start of the playoffs in New Jersey next week. The last time these two played made the same Tour Championship field was in 2013.
Asked pre-tournament about Woods’ position last week, Davis Love III, the winning U.S. captain from 2016 and a vice-captain this year, said, “If I was a captain, I'm looking to make pairings, and everybody on the team wants to play with Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods or some veteran player that's done it a lot. So I think he's an easy pick from that regard, and the way he's been playing, if I was on the other side, I wouldn't want him picked, so that's another good reason (to pick him).
Of Mickelson, Love added, “You get a team leader – Phil's been that basically the last four or five probably Ryder Cups. He's been a playing captain. He's been a leader for the team. So I think he'll fit in.”
Both legends have losing records in the Ryder Cup. Woods is 13-17-3 all-time; Mickelson is 18-20-7. However, in the last three cups beginning at Medinah in 2012, Mickelson has a record of 7-3-1.
Furyk will have plenty of options. He has some highly ranked potential rookies (Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Tony Finau), competitors from previous U.S. Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup teams (Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson) and he also will be intrigued to see who gets hot in the next few weeks. At the Wyndham Championship on Thursday, for instance, Ryder Cup veteran Brandt Snedeker shot 59. Ryan Moore, who collected the decisive point in 2016 at Hazeltine, opened with 63.
And then there’s Tiger and Phil. Their experience is difficult to dismiss.
“What’s important is that Phil has had a great season, a great body of work,” Furyk said. “And Tiger as of late has been playing fantastic, almost as well as anyone on the team. He basically willed himself to a 64 on Sunday. It’s great to watch him play so well.”