Thursday’s first round of The Barclays is in the books, which means the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs are officially underway. With the first of the four playoff tournaments being played this year at Bethpage Black, that sprawling beast of a public course on Long Island, almost all of the world’s top male golfers have made their way to Farmingdale. Of the names most casual fans would recognize, only Sergio Garcia elected to pass on The Barclay’s. Currently 20th in the FedEx Cup standings, the Spaniard is assured of advancing to next week’s Deutsche Bank Championship, when the field will be cut from the top 125 down to 100.
Full attendance was of course not the case for golf’s recent reintroduction to the Olympic Games after an absence of more than a century. Many of the top men, including four of the top five in the world rankings, found various reasons to skip the long journey to Rio; a fact that wasn’t all that surprising given that gold, silver and bronze medals hold no historical significance in the game. No young lad ever stood over a putt on a practice green thinking to himself, “Here’s a ten footer for birdie and Olympic gold!” In contrast at the end of the FedEx Cup rainbow lies the $10 million bonus awarded to the winner. Now that’s a prize to which members of the PGA Tour surely can relate.
But less one surmise that all professional golfers care about is the size of their bank accounts, there is another event on the near horizon that doesn’t award any kind of individual prize at all, and the stiff competition to get into it is providing a dramatic subtext to this weekend’s play at Bethpage Black. The Barclays is not just the first playoff event, it’s also the last tournament that counts in the two-year long standings for the eight automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
The top five in the American standings going into this week’s play, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker and Brooks Koepka, will all head to Hazeltine National Golf Club at the end of the month as members of the 12-man U.S. squad. Brandt Snedeker and Zach Johnson, currently in 6th and 7th position, are probably safe for an automatic spot, though Johnson may want to step on the gas a bit in his second round after finishing round one tied for 69th at 2-over par. A missed cut would allow the players pursuing one of the final qualifying spots an open opportunity to overtake him.
Behind Johnson in 8th place is Patrick Reed, and behind him are a list of accomplished players including many Ryder Cup veterans who would dearly love to make the team. Johnson’s in 7th place with 4,437.973 points, less than 160 points ahead of Reed. With 1,530 points awarded to this week’s winner, anyone in the top twenty can play their way onto the team in the next few days.
Ryder Cup veterans currently on the outside looking in include Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler and Jim Furyk, 10th through 12th and 15th, respectively. Watson and Kuchar have each played on the last three U.S. teams, Fowler made the team in 2010 and 2014, and Furyk has a string of nine consecutive appearances dating to 1997. With its match play format and two days of foursomes and fourballs team play, the Ryder Cup is utterly different from the weekly 72-hole stroke play tournaments that make up the PGA Tour’s annual schedule. U.S. Captain Davis Love III would surely love to have some experienced hands to face Team Europe, which will be gunning for an unprecedented fourth straight victory.
Experience could be even more important than usual this year because of the makeup of the European squad. The continental qualification system awards nine spots automatically, based upon the European Tour money list and World Golf Ranking points. Although this is also the final week to earn points at the Made in Denmark tournament, the standings are such that all nine places are already locked in. Euro captain Darren Clarke has five rookies among those who played their way onto his team. And while Clarke has named Ian Poulter as a vice-captain, he won’t have the British golfer who has made a career out of excelling at this biennial event out on the course since Poulter had been sidelined for months with a foot injury.
While experience would be nice to have, at present Love’s list of automatic qualifiers is only slightly more seasoned than Clarke’s. Brooks Koepka will be making his maiden Ryder Cup appearance, and four others among the current top eight have been members of just one prior team.
Given those facts one can safely assume that both captains will look to veterans when making their personal selections. Clarke has three captain’s picks that he will announce next week; while Love gets to name four team members. Three of his picks will be announced following the BMW Championship, the third of the FedEx Cup Playoff events. The American captain gets to wait until after the Tour Championship to name the final member of the U.S. squad, allowing him to focus on a golfer not yet on the team who looks to be in top form just as Ryder Cup week starts.
Just as no one ever won a PGA Tour event in the first round, so none of those contending for the final automatic spots are locked into position with 54 holes of The Barclays still to go. But Patrick Reed opened with a 5-under par 66 to sit in a two-way tie for the lead, while Rickie Fowler shot 67 in his opening round and is tied for 3rd. Of all the players chasing one of the automatic spots Fowler has been most open about his desire to play his way onto the team and give Love greater flexibility in making his captain’s picks. He raced home from the Olympics to play last week’s Wyndham Championship in an effort to move up in the standings, and he’s off to a strong start on Long Island.
By Sunday evening the automatic qualifiers will be known, and Love will begin deliberating over his captain’s picks, as Clarke is already doing. When each makes his phone calls telling players they are in or out, a handful will rejoice but more will be bitterly disappointed. In like manner, when the decisive point is won at Hazeltine, one team will revel while the other sinks into despair. Whether they produce a historic win streak for Europe or redemption for the U.S. after the Medinah meltdown the last time they were played on home soil, the 41st Ryder Cup matches will offer decisive proof that at the pinnacle of the game, golf can be about something vastly more important than money.