Brad Faxon has aspired to plenty of great moments. All his golfing life he has pretended to have putts to win major championships. He has even simulated the infamous six-footer Bernhard Langer faced to win the 1991 Ryder Cup—and made it.
But Faxon was in uncharted territory in the final round of the PGA Championship on Sunday when he got over a 15-foot downhill slider on the 18th hole at Riviera. It was a putt he desperately needed in order to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Somehow drawing on every golf dream he has ever had, Faxon knew what to do. He hit the purest putt of his life and watched it roll perfectly into the center of the hole. Just like that, golf had a new fantasy moment. With a closing 63, a figure that tied the lowest round ever shot in a major championship and included a seven-under-par 28 on the front nine, Faxon catapulted himself out of a tie for 21st after three rounds to grab fifth place, the absolute minimum he needed at the last qualifying event to secure the last available spot on the Ryder Cup team.
"It's the biggest thing I've ever done in my life," said an emotional Faxon, a 12-year pro who has won four PGA Tour events, while accepting congratulations from his peers in the Riviera locker room. "The Ryder Cup is one of the few things left that is pure sport. It's about the things you miss when you play for money. It's about the love of the game. It's why everybody wants to play."
So it is. For many American players, the nearly two-year-long points competition that determines who qualifies for the team has taken on an importance second only to winning major championships. It's a race whose pressure becomes almost paralyzing in its final weeks. Players in contention to earn their way onto the team inevitably find that the top-10 finishes needed to garner points are as elusive as actual victories. This year, for example, no new players cracked the American top 10 from the U.S. Open all the way up to the PGA.
With all the urgency at Riviera, something finally gave. Faxon jumped from a tie for 14th in the standings into 10th, while Jeff Maggert's tie for third took him from 12th all the way to sixth. They bumped No. 9 Mark Calcavecchia, who missed the cut at Riviera, and No. 10 Kenny Perry, who finished tied for 49th. While Faxon's clear goal all week was to make the team, Maggert tried to put all thoughts of the Ryder Cup out of his head and concentrate instead on winning the tournament.
"It made things a lot simpler," said Maggert. "When I think about how to finish in the top 10, I'm thinking about the wrong things on the golf course. And that's when I would feel pressure."
A different but related pressure made it a very long week for U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins, who after much deliberation, soul-searching and cogitating, finally chose Fred Couples and Curtis Strange, each a Ryder Cup veteran and major-championship winner, as his two picks to fill out the 12-man squad. The choices were not surprising in that they provided additional experience, which Wadkins feels his club will need at Oak Hill. Of the 10 players who made the team on points, only two, Ben Crenshaw and Corey Pavin, have played in more than one Ryder Cup.
When he is right, Couples, who has played in the last three Ryder Cups, brings more strength and talent to Wadkins than any other American player. Apart from Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson, the U.S. team is composed mainly of Steady Eddies, and Couples packs a birdie-making explosiveness and length off the tee. His injured back makes him iffy, but Wadkins has a safety net. Under Ryder Cup rules, if Couples is hurt anytime from now until the eve of competition, Wadkins can pick another player to replace him. Wadkins said he already has a replacement in mind.
Strange brings leadership and toughness to a young team that, except for its captain, outwardly lacks a gritty competitive edge. "People look at us and say, 'Geez, everybody's too nice,' " admitted one of the nicest, Jay Haas. "They won't say that if we have Curtis."