Last week at the Buick Open one of golf's nicest guys, Kenny Perry, earned his first victory in six years, set a handful of tournament scoring records and collected $558,000, the biggest check of his 15-year career. Enough about him, though. Two years of Ryder Cup anticipation has now reached a fevered pitch, and while Perry performed like a head-liner, his victory was overshadowed by what Jeff Sluman called "the tournament within the tournament"—the race to finish in the top 10 in Ryder Cup qualifying points, thus earning an automatic spot on the U.S. team. This week's PGA Championship is the last chance to earn points, and that's why every player from eighth to 19th in the standings showed up at the Buick.
Paralyzed by major championship pressure, vexed by a brutal course setup, hounded by an oppressive number of reporters, the Ryder Cup bubble boys figure to have a tough time simply taking the club back at the PGA, let alone racking up points. The Buick, then, became the last good chance to gain ground—or lose it. At the end of a frenetic week two players had made bold moves up the standings, one poor soul was unceremoniously bounced from the top 10, and a struggling hero of a Ryder Cup past blew a golden opportunity to advance his cause.
Oh, yeah, and Perry inserted himself into the fray, at least mathematically. "It's possible, I guess," said Perry, who would have to finish no worse than second in the PGA to have a sniff at the top 10. "I haven't thought about it. I will have to look at my points." You have 370.286 of them, Kenny, putting you in 24th place.
Players pick up points only for a top 10 finish: 150 to the winner, 90 for second, 80 for third, 70 for fourth, and so on down the line. (The points are doubled at the majors). Coming into the Buick Open, a mere 56.5 points separated 10th place ( Joe Durant) from 17th ( Scott Verplank), leaving Durant to stroll around Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club in Grand Blanc, Mich., with a giant bull's-eye on his back.
Over the first four months of the season Durant had been the darling of the Ryder Cup race, as he piled up points with a pair of victories and two other top five finishes. Starting with the Colonial, in late May, the Tour had been more like a death march for Durant, as he had missed the cut in six of seven events while hamstrung by the effects of a bulging disk in his neck. "No way I'd be here [were it not for the Ryder Cup]," Durant said last week. "I felt as if I had to protect my position."
His normally aggressive shoulder turn constrained by his balky neck, Durant tried to scrape it around Warwick Hills by taking more club and making a wimpy three-quarter swing. During the second round he hit only 12 greens and, on fairways so dry they were amber-colored, averaged a meager 272 yards per drive. With rounds of 70-71 Durant missed the cut by a stroke, and on Friday afternoon he finally cracked. "I don't care anymore," he said. "I'm sick of all this. I want this whole tiling to be over."
Even those enjoying better luck last week were overcome by the Ryder Cup hysteria. "I can't get away from it," Jim Furyk said while loitering outside the scorer's tent moments after a second-round 69, which left him tied for second place. Furyk came into the Buick 11th in the points race, and he said, "I hear about it from the gallery at least once a hole. I hear it from my friends on the phone, in the locker room from other players, in the media center. It has probably come up 20 times already today, and it will probably come up another 20." Moments later Furyk arrived in the press room, where the first question began, "Trying to pick up Ryder Cup points, this sets you up for a top 10...."
With a 66-66 weekend Furyk did better than that. By tying for second, two strokes behind Perry, he leapfrogged into eighth place in the Ryder Cup standings, with 587.875 points. (Stuck at 505.000, Durant plummeted to 12th, leaving Tom Lehman, who missed the cut by eight shots at the Buick, in the precarious 10th spot with 543.750.) "Second place usually leaves you feeling a little empty," Furyk said, "but this is definitely a good consolation."
Furyk was a member of the last two Ryder Cup teams and is unbeaten and untied in singles. Even if he were to fall out of the top 10 this week, he would be a strong candidate for one of Curtis Strange's two captain's selections. Chris DiMarco, runner-up with Furyk at the Buick, has a shakier case, and he knows it. "I saw Curtis at the British Open," says DiMarco, who came into the Buick 16th in the standings, "and he said he's not going to be afraid to go pretty far down the list for his two choices. That's encouraging to a lot of guys, but not to me. Let's be real—he's not going to go out on a limb and take a rookie. They make you play your way onto your first team."
On the strength of a rousing 65-65 weekend at the Buick, DiMarco, a 32-year-old New Yorker by way of Orlando, is on the verge of doing exactly that. He's now 11th (534.000) in the points race, with a bullet. The Buick was DiMarco's third top three finish in his last four tournaments, and he doesn't downplay his motivation. "Representing my country would be one of the greatest honors of my life," he says.