After Rory McIlroy claimed his fourth career major title at Valhalla on Sunday night, much of the attention of the world’s golfing media focused on what this victory tells us about the 25-year-old Irishman’s future potential.
Of more immediate concern to McIlroy and the losing field, however, is the impact that his victory has on the US and European teams’ Ryder Cup standings.
McIlroy stated as much himself. The current world No. 1 commented during an SEO conference that he intends to be Team Europe’s “talisman” and “drive them forward” to victory.
Because now that the final major of the season is over, we have a clearer picture of how Tom Watson and Paul McGinley’s teams will line up at Gleneagles in September.
The close of the US PGA Championship at the weekend brought with it the close of the Team USA points race. The nine players who top the standings are now assured of their spot in Tom Watson’s 12-man team come September 26 in Perthshire. Watson will announce an additional three wild-card picks on September 2.
Five of the US team were confirmed before the season ending major began.
The two-time US Masters Champion, Bubba Watson, topped the points table and was set to be joined in Scotland by the 25-year-old Rickie Fowler, the veteran Jim Furyk, the Ryder Cup debutant Jimmy Walker, as well as by the 36-year-old Matt Kuchar.
Of the four players who needed to hang on to their top-nine status over the course of the tournament at Valhalla—Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson—only one of them failed to do so: Jason Dufner.
The Ohio native’s difficulty, though, proved to be Phil Mickelson's opportunity. Lefty’s impressive second place finish at Valhalla—his first top 10 on the PGA Tour since January—saw the 44-year-old jump from 10th in the points standings to fifth and seal his place at a 10th successive Ryder Cup.
Despite being the only player in the top nine to miss the cut at the PGA, therefore, the 21-year-old Jordan Spieth will make his Ryder Cup debut alongside fellow rookies Patrick Reed (24) and Jimmy Walker.
Now begins the speculation over who will be picked to fill Team USA’s three wild-card spots.
The most conspicuous absence from Watson’s roster is, of course, Tiger Woods.
The 38-year-old has endured his worst season since turning professional in 1996. He has been forced to have back surgery and missed two majors as a result. At the PGA Championship, Woods played with an injury and missed the cut.
Woods ranks 71st in the US Ryder Cup standings. He has been fit to play only eight events this season. In these appearances, he has been cut twice, withdrawn twice and amassed only 45 FedEx Cup Points.
Furthermore, it is well established that Woods’ Ryder Cup record is far from stellar.
The 14-time major champion stands at 13-14-2 through seven Ryder Cups. He can hardly lay persuasive claim to the sort of “must pick me as a wild-card” rhetoric that one hears associated with Ian Poulter.
On this basis, it appears difficult, if not impossible, to construct a logical argument for Woods’ inclusion at Gleneagles.
And, despite Dustin Johnson’s ineligibility, it is not as though Watson does not have attractive options to call in Woods’ place. Even aside from an injury-compromised Dufner, the 2011 PGA Champion, Keegan Bradley, ranks 13th in the points standings and won three of his four matches at the 2012 Ryder Cup.
The 2012 US Open champion, Webb Simpson, meantime, ranks 15th in the US Ryder Cup standings; he won two of his four matches at the 2012 event in Medina.
Hunter Mahan, too, looks to be an attractive wild-card option. Ranked 25th in the points race, Mahan is a former world No. 4 and won the World Match Play Championship in 2012. He has experience, having played in two Ryder Cups, along with Mickleson and Furyk. Therefore, he could provide useful guidance for the three rookies that compose the US roster.
Nevertheless, Watson’s public declarations suggest that if Woods assures him of his fitness over the next three weeks, he will be on the airplane to Scotland.
The New York Times's Bill Pennington quotes Watson as saying, “Obviously, Tiger has not been playing well. But I think it’s been a result, as you well know, of his injury and his coming back from back surgery. It comes down to whether he can physically play and is he playing well? Right now, he can’t play 36 holes in a day, we all know that.”
The uncertainty surrounding Team USA certainly contrasts sharply with the calm assuredness that has characterized Paul McGinley’s preparation to defend the Ryder Cup next month.
Since the start of Tiger’s decline in 2009, the centre of golfing world power has gradually ebbed across the Atlantic. The Europeans’ recent domination of the Ryder Cup is well established, but Europe now holds three of the four majors contested this season and boasts by far the best player in the game on current form.
The European points race does not close until the end of the month, but the PGA Championship was the last big money opportunity for players on the fringe of the top-nine to force themselves into the automatic qualification spots.
As things stand, Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Victor Dubuisson, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Thomas Bjorn, Jamie Donaldson and Graeme McDowell would compose McGinley’s nine automatic picks.
McDowell’s status as an automatic qualifier, though, is far from assured; Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Stephen Gallacher all possess the opportunity to unseat the Irishman over the next three weeks.
Players like Miguel Angel Jimenez, Francesco Molinari, Shane Lowry, Mikko Ilonen, Jonas Blixt and Pablo Larrazabal, meanwhile, can all stake persuasive claims to be included as wildcards.
The European roster certainly looks more settled ahead of the clash at Gleneagles. But while the US line-up may not appear as stellar as in previous decades, it is one of the most determined groups that America will ever send to a Ryder Cup.
Because with or without Tiger Woods, after a season of European domination on both sides of the Atlantic, Team USA has more than just pride to play for in Gleneagles.
Watson’s boys will be playing to preserve the integrity of their Ryder Cup reputations, too.