Ryder Cup question marks

It’s not too early to start thinking about how the Ryder Cup teams are shaping up, and in that context the victories by Zach Johnson and Luke Donald last weekend represented good news for both sides.

Johnson was having a lackluster year until he got to the Colonial, but a victory there moved him to 12th in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings. That puts him into position to challenge for the top eight and an automatic spot or, if not, to become a viable candidate for one of the four captain’s selections that will be made by Corey Pavin.

Donald’s victory at the Madrid Masters moved him to fourth in the world ranking points portion of Europe’s Ryder Cup standings, a category where the top four make the team. He was playing consistently well this year, but his first victory since 2006 quieted some doubts about him and gives him a positive outlook heading into the summer.

Perhaps the most intriguing Ryder Cup story lines at this point involve Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia, both of whom are currently outside the cutoff point for qualifying on points. Pavin said that he will treat Woods like anyone else, that he won’t be an automatic selection. Basically, that means Woods will have to be playing well in order to be picked.

On the face of it, that’s reasonable. But when you consider who the other candidates outside the top eight are likely to be at a time when U.S. depth is not all that great, Woods would have to be playing really poorly, have serious injury issues, or a life that hasn’t gotten back on the rails not to be picked. (Despite having played only three tournaments this year, he’s 11th on the points list, which is based on 2010 tournaments and the majors from 2009, so he’s got a good chance to make it on points.)

True, the U.S. won without him in 2008. But it’s hard to imagine Tiger Woods not being among the top 12 U.S. players.

While Woods has hardly been a U.S. bellwether in Ryder Cup competition, it’s a different story for Garcia, who has been an inspirational figure for Europe in compiling a 14-6-4 career record (though he did lay an egg in 2008, when he was 1-3). It’s hard to imagine a European team without Garcia—until you consider his unimpressive play in 2010, coming after an unimpressive year in 2009. Even Garcia himself said essentially that at this point he doesn’t deserve a captain’s selection.

European captain Colin Montgomerie might think otherwise. Last week, he expressed confidence that Garcia’s game would come around and said that any team without Garcia is a weaker one and any team with him is a stronger one. Of course, if Sergio remains mired in the depths, it will be a tough call.

Depending on how things fall, Garcia—or somebody from Europe—could get caught in a squeeze. The European Ryder Cup committee boosted the captain’s selections from two to three, instead of increasing the number to four to match the Americans (whose captain Paul Azinger lobbied for and got the increase in 2008). In a way, it was an odd decision since Europe would seem to need more flexibility, with so many of its top players competing often in the U.S. Apparently, creating an incentive for players to compete in Europe was more important than fielding the strongest squad.

What’s more, that extra captain’s pick was taken away from the world ranking points list (cut from five players to four) instead of the European Tour points list, reducing the effectiveness of adding a captain’s pick. As an illustration of that point, Donald’s victory moved him to fourth place on the world ranking points list, dropping Padraig Harrington to fifth and currently out of an automatic spot. (The top three are Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, and Ian Poulter.)

As it stands now, Harrington and Paul Casey would be the obvious first two captain’s picks. That means you would have to leave out either Garcia or Henrik Stenson (granted, not looking like a terrible thing at the moment, with Stenson playing worse than Sergio) along with such players as Ross Fisher, Miguel Angel Jimenez, and Graeme McDowell.

Currently, Ross McGowan, Simon Dyson, and Franceso Molinari hold down three of the top five spots on the European Tour list (along with Martin Kaymer and Alvaro Quiros), though with nearly three months remaining there is plenty of time for that to change.

The U.S. team has some question marks, even among its top players. Will Tiger Woods be Tiger Woods again by this fall? Will Anthony Kim recover from his two-month absence from his thumb surgery to be playing as well as he was in the spring? Steve Stricker just missed a month because of a bad shoulder. Even Phil Mickelson, probably the best player in the world at the moment, showed again by missing the cut at the Colonial that he’s prone to the occasional off week—not a good thing for the U.S. if it happens during the Ryder Cup. (The top eight currently are Mickelson, Kim, Jim Furyk, Lucas Glover, Hunter Mahan, Stricker, Dustin Johnson, and Ben Crane.)

With three majors and some other big tournaments remaining before the teams are determined, there’s plenty of time for the names to change regarding who’s in, who’s out, and who might be picked. But for all of the players involved, now would be a good time to start moving in the right direction, as Johnson and Donald did last week.

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