As perhaps the greatest golfer to ever live, it would seem like a no-brainer for Tiger Woods to be a part of the United States' 2014 Ryder Cup team, presuming he's healthy. Woods has battled injuries but now seems to be pain-free and entering an extremely favorable stretch of the PGA Tour schedule.
However, an at-large pick from captain Tom Watson will be required for Woods to be on the USA team for September's showdown with Europe at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland.
Not only is Woods ranked 70th in the USA Ryder Cup standings, but he's also trailing the 64-year-old Watson himself in the FedEx Cup.
Although Watson only gets three captain's picks, his team lacks dynamic personalities and could use Woods' presence to solve that problem pretty much single-handedly.
The points race gets tighter on the fringes of the top 10, with the top nine players getting automatic Ryder Cup bids following the PGA Championship. Strong but lesser-known golfers such as Brendon Todd, Chris Kirk and Ryan Moore have chances to get automatic berths ahead of bigger stars, making the decision to pick Woods even more difficult.
Woods has to prove himself on the course before he can be chosen with any confidence from Watson's end.
The good news for golf fans is that the next two events up for the game's biggest star are the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship. Woods has won the former tournament eight times, including last year by seven strokes, and he seized victory at Valhalla Golf Club the last time it hosted the PGA in 2000.
It was vintage Woods, refusing to quit in a thrilling playoff duel with Bob May. Woods won that PGA at the apex of his powers, completing the third leg of what became the "Tiger Slam."
At age 38, Woods is entering what should be the last phase of his career, with plenty to prove. To say he isn't himself on the course right now is a massive understatement, too. After missing the cut in his return to competition at the Quicken Loans National, Woods recorded a 69th-place finish at The Open Championship.
Many doubted Woods in the wake of those poor results, particularly when he collapsed following a strong three-under 69 to start the British Open. Golf Channel's Jason Sobel tried to add some context:
Tiger Woods closes with a 3-over 75. Disappointing? Obviously. But less than four months removed from back surgery, still fairly impressive.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) July 20, 2014
Expectations were high at Hoylake, where Woods won the Claret Jug in 2006. That suggests similar glory may not be in store at Valhalla. With added reps in a tournament setting, though, anything seems possible considering the talented golfer Woods is.
At least faring well in Akron almost seems like a given for Woods. He has had evident rust to shake off, and he is bound to be in the hunt at Firestone Country Club with his triumphant track record there.
Eight wins in 15 starts? That is truly crazy.
The PGA Championship is a different story, because Woods still hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. Holding the Wanamaker Trophy would obviously make Woods a lock for the Ryder Cup. All Watson really needs to see is that Woods' game is in shape for the type of competitive atmosphere a major fosters.
But Woods must do well enough in the next two events to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. Ultimate pressure and the weight of expectation is nothing Woods is unfamiliar with. Nevertheless, there is work to be done. At No. 214 in the current standings, he needs to ascend to the top 125 to make it into The Barclays field. From there, whether he advances and plays more will be determined on a weekly basis.
The smaller the sample size Watson has to evaluate, the less likely Woods will join the U.S. team at Gleneagles.
Another fan favorite in Phil Mickelson is on the Ryder Cup bubble amid a troublesome season. Mickelson, unlike Woods, has at least been competing all year and has shown flashes of brilliance to suggest he could be a viable contributor.
Bob Harig of ESPN.com recorded Watson's comments following the British Open:
[...] If Phil and Tiger don't make it in the mix there, I've got some real thinking to do. Everybody is thinking that I'm going to pick them automatically. I can assure you that I'm not going to pick them automatically.
I said about Tiger that I'll pick him if he's playing well and he's in good health. And Phil is the same way. If he's playing well, again, how can you not pick those two?
Further complicating the Woods Ryder Cup dilemma is his record in the international showdown.
Woods, for all his individual brilliance, has amassed 13 wins, 17 losses and three halves in his career. A stronger singles record shows Woods' razor-sharp focus that makes him such a great tournament player often hurts him in a team situation.
The following quote from Woods after the British Open sums up the road ahead best for Woods to make the Ryder Cup squad.
"Well, I'd like to win the next two tournaments I'm in. That should take care of that," said Woods, per Harig.
There are so many layers to Watson's impending decision on Woods that this could become one of the most discussed Ryder Cup captain's choices in history.
Does Tiger Woods deserve a captain's pick for the 2014 USA Ryder Cup team?
To commence its quest to exact vengeance on foreign soil, the American side would love to have Woods in form, qualifying for a captain's pick on merit rather than his individual legacy. Watson isn't the type to play favorites—he's said as much publicly.
The competitor in Woods can appreciate that. Thus, if he truly does hope to be on the Ryder Cup team, he should be driven as ever to perform on courses with which he's familiar in his next two starts.
Between the invaluable four rounds he had at Hoylake and the time he has to fix his swing and other areas in his game before Akron, don't be surprised if Woods pens another winning, epic chapter in his storybook career within the next month.
From there, a Ryder Cup spot will indeed be taken care of.
Note: Statistics are courtesy of PGATour.com unless otherwise cited.