Tom Watson had to be watching the final round of the 2014 PGA Championship with a wry smile on his face and a sinking feeling in his heart.
The U.S. Ryder Cup captain witnessed the best player on the planet—for the first time since the late 1990s, decidedly not an American—win his third consecutive tournament this season, including two major championships, while a host of top American players could do little down the back nine but hang on and hope for a mistake that never came.
Rory McIlroy is now fully formed—David Feherty called him a "baby-faced assassin" during his back-nine 32 on Sunday—winning the final two majors of the year, lapping the field at the British and coming back from a slow start, by his standards, to pass an all-star collection of golfers at the PGA on Sunday.
For a while on Sunday it looked like McIlroy was indeed human, losing his advantage over the field early in his final round—his three-stroke lead over runner-up Phil Mickelson had long since disappeared by the turn—before putting on the kind of all-world display we've now grown accustomed to seeing from the kid. It was great drama, even if it did leave Watson and the Americans with a lingering belief that McIlroy—and with him the Europeans—seem entirely unbeatable this year.
The scene down the stretch on Sunday at Valhalla felt reminiscent of a Ryder Cup, too. With darkness invading the course at a far too rapid pace for McIlroy to realistically finish on Sunday night, the best golfer on the planet asked if he could play the 18th hole with Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, who were in the group ahead.
The request—which neither Fowler nor Mickelson looked too happy to accommodate—created some amazing final-hole theater. Despite a two-stroke lead as he teed off the 18th, McIlroy's tee shot nearly landed in a hazard, and his approach splashed into a bunker some 35 yards from the hole.
Mickelson and Fowler were ostensibly playing the 18th of a major championship as a foursome, hoping to win the hole and find some way to slow down McIlroy.
Sadly for the Americans, there were no half-points to be won on this day. And despite Mickelson nearly holing out a chip from just short of the green, McIlroy was the stroke-play equivalent of dormie, needing nothing but a routine two-putt par on 18 to win his fourth career major championship on a near pitch-dark Kentucky evening.
Four ball, with the sunlight dwindling, with that kind of pressure and that raucous a crowd? If we could have replaced McIlroy's playing partner Bernd Wiesberger with Graeme McDowell, we were looking at what's surely a Friday or Saturday four-ball match in Scotland just over a month from now.
If there was one silver lining for Watson while watching the final round unfold at Valhalla, it's that Mickelson looks to be playing his best golf of the season right now. After a shaky 2014, the Hall of Famer looks back, and just in time.
Oh, did I say back? Sorry, Tom. Really sorry.
"Back" is suddenly a four-letter bad word around the American Ryder Cup team. Tiger Woods has struggled to stay healthy this season to the point that he was unsure he could even tee off in the PGA Championship until late Wednesday after injuring his back last week. Woods' back may be fine in time for the Ryder Cup at the end of September, but can Watson be sure his game will be ready in time?
Can Watson use one of his captain's selections, which he will announce on September 2, on Woods, hoping that both his health and his game return in the next few weeks?
Speaking of backs, Matt Kuchar—one of the players who has already made the Ryder Cup team—had his own back issue that forced him to withdraw at Valhalla. The next player in line for the United States after the top nine would be Jason Dufner, who was in position to earn a spot on the team before he had to withdraw from defending his PGA crown with a neck injury. Neck…back…it's all connected, and it's all bad news for Watson and the American Ryder Cup team.
The nine players already qualified for Watson's team are Bubba Watson, Fowler, Jim Furyk, Jimmy Walker, Mickelson, Kuchar, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Zach Johnson. Watson will have to select three more players to round out his roster and may need four players in total if Kuchar's back doesn't respond in time.
Dustin Johnson's name does not appear on the current Ryder Cup standings, despite the fact that he sits sixth on the FedEx Cup points list. Johnson is on a break from the game to work on personal problems, and while the PGA Tour was quick to state it did not suspend Johnson, his inclusion in an event like the Ryder Cup would, frankly, be insane to even contemplate at this point.
The other U.S. options feel slim and particularly uninspired at a time when the European team looks as solid as ever. European players won three of the four majors this season, while Americans have emerged victorious in just six out of 18 tournaments on the PGA Tour since Bubba Watson claimed his second green jacket.
With the Ryder Cup being held in Scotland to boot, it just feels like we're preparing for a European runaway this season. That's why Watson's picks are so vital.
The logical choice for one pick may be Keegan Bradley, who teamed with Mickelson in the 2012 Ryder Cup to earn three vital points in his four matches. The only match he didn't earn a point? A singles loss to McIlroy. (Gulp.)
Dufner, if healthy, would also be a logical choice for Watson given his own 3-1-0 record in 2012. Dufner's only loss came in a four-ball match with Zach Johnson against Ian Poulter and, yep, McIlroy. (Double gulp.)
Another option for Watson, especially given the number of rookies he has on the squad through qualification, is to see if his vice-captain, Steve Stricker, would be willing to pack his clubs for the trip and give the Ryder Cup another go.
Stricker is the ultimate golfing grinder, with a game perfect for the Ryder Cup format. Having said that, he's 3-7-1 in his career at the event, including an 0-4-0 record in 2012, when he lost three times with Woods as his partner before falling to Martin Kaymer, the reigning U.S. Open champion, in the singles.
The other potential choices for Watson are all solid players having decent years but nobody who should strike any fear in the European team's collective heart.
Steve DiMeglio at USA Today ran down the list of potential picks this weekend, including Brandt Snedeker, Hunter Mahan, Webb Simpson, Bradley, Ryan Palmer and Ryan Moore. DiMeglio added Brendon Todd and Chris Kirk in the mix as well, because, at this point, why not?
When asked what he's looking for in his three remaining selections, Watson replied (per DiMeglio):
The main thing is right here. Who's got the heart? Who's got the guts to make the 5-footer when the chips are down, to be able to grind it out and get that one point? That's what I'm looking for.
The main thing is you get guys who will do anything possible to win. If you are not hitting it very well, you find a way. My caddie Bruce Edwards always said to me when I was playing lousy, 'All right. Come on, find a way. Find a way.' When I hit the ball in the crap, he said, 'Give us a swing. Just give us a swing.'
Could you imagine Todd or Kirk on the 2014 Ryder Cup team and not Woods? Heck, could you imagine any of the players on this team making it ahead of Tiger? Yes…sadly, yes. After the last few weeks—the last few years—the answer has to be yes.
Tiger's tenure as the king of the golfing world is over, and his automatic inclusion in the Ryder Cup should be as well. That's not to say he will never make a team again if Watson doesn't pick him this time. Though Woods is 38 years old, Mickelson and Furyk both qualified for the 2014 team on points at 44 years old. Stricker, despite being semi-retired, is still playing extremely well at 47 years old and should be a captain's pick this year.
It's just that for the first time since last century (think about that), there's a new face of golf.
At 25, McIlroy surely isn't going anywhere for a while. Given the choices Watson has for the American squad against McIlroy and his European brethren, it seems neither will the Ryder Cup trophy.