As you're surely aware from the PGA Tour's ubiquitous promotion, the FedEx Cup playoffs began with last week's Barclays, but it was rightfully overshadowed by the other Cup, the one named in 1927 for British entrepreneur and golf enthusiast Samuel Ryder. The early part of the Barclays was consumed by a juicy transatlantic feud involving European Ryder Cup skipper José María Olazábal and his would-be captain's pick, Padraig Harrington. By Sunday evening all the intrigue centered on who would or wouldn't be the captain's choices for the U.S. team. On the undercard Nick Watney won the Barclays.
Harrington, a three-time major champion, has played in six Ryder Cups, but, winless on his own ball since 2010, he has long been on the bubble for this team. It hasn't helped Harrington's cause that he has bad blood with Olazábal going back to 2003, when he accused the proud Spaniard of a rules breach at the Seve Trophy. After Harrington shot a first-round 64 to take the lead at the Barclays, he was asked to assess his relationship with Olazábal. "I don't know where I sit," he said. "Or maybe I do." From Scotland, Olazábal weighed in on the perception that his old antipathy toward Harrington would color his captain's picks: "That is a load of b.s., to put it gently." Harrington's fade to 19th place pretty much sealed his fate, and on Monday, Olazábal announced his selections: Ian Poulter (a no-brainer) and Ryder neophyte Nicolas (Belgian Bomber) Colsaerts, a long-hitting 29-year-old with exactly two career Euro tour victories. If Colsaerts has anything to do with Europe's losing the Cup, Olazábal would be wise to avoid Ireland for a while.
With the European side having coalesced, all the focus is on beleaguered Davis Love III. The U.S. captain has spent the last few weeks agonizing over the four players who will fill out his team, a decision that will come on Sept. 4, the day after the conclusion of the Deutsche Bank Championship. Conventional wisdom had been that it was down to five men offering disparate virtues; they'll be picked in this unofficial order of likelihood: Steve Stricker (great putter, Tiger Woods's preferred partner), Jim Furyk (grit, leadership), Rickie Fowler (scrappy attitude, reliable all-around game), Dustin Johnson (power, good form), Hunter Mahan (premier iron player, two wins this year, including the match-play championship). Love's dilemma became a lot more complicated thanks to the intrigue at the Barclays, at which Watney (long and straight, birdie machine) conquered Bethpage Black, a long, brawny, penal course that feels a lot like Medinah, site of the Sept. 28--30 Ryder Cup. Brandt Snedeker (superb putter, fun personality in the team room) helped himself big-time by finishing second, another highlight in a season during which he has won at Torrey Pines and tied for third at the British Open. And Johnson strengthened his bid with a tie for third, his sixth top 10 in his last 13 starts.
"I don't want to lobby by saying I've done this or I've done that," said Watney, who won twice on Tour last year and went 2-1-1 at the 2011 Presidents Cup, beating K.J. Choi in singles. Then again, before the Barclays his best showing this year was an eighth-place finish at the Wells Fargo back in May. He added, "The best way I can enter the conversation is by playing my way into the conversation."
On Sunday, Love monitored the final round of the Barclays from his hunting lodge in the wilds of South Carolina, fielding calls and texts from two of his assistant captains, Mike Hulbert and Scott Verplank. Reached by phone, Love said, "I'm not rooting for or against any player—I'm just hoping for some clarity. This week didn't exactly help. The picture is pretty muddled, but that's because so many guys are playing well, which is a nice problem to have."
Love does not try to downplay the magnitude of his dilemma. "Except for when I'm sleeping, I'm thinking about it," he says. "I'm thinking about it as I'm walking down the fairway of my own rounds. It's getting intense." In talking to Love, reading the tea leaves of those around him and sifting through the driving-range innuendo at the Barclays, the latest consensus is that Stricker's a lock, Love has a man crush on Fowler, Furyk has been downgraded to a maybe, Snedeker's stock is surging, Mahan (who missed his second straight cut and has one top 10 in the last five months) is now a long shot, and Watney and Johnson have such a similar skill set that it's unlikely both will get selected.
After nearly two years of qualifying, it's crazy to think that one final tournament, the Deutsche Bank, can have a big effect on Love's thinking, but Watney is proof of how much can change in four days. In his rousing performance at Bethpage he was second in the field in greens in regulation and led everybody with 23 birdies. Thanks to an early-week tip from a guy he had never met—Darrell Kestner, the head pro at nearby Deepdale Golf Club—Watney's putting passed the ultimate test on greens that had been pushed to the verge of unplayable. Love called it "a big performance on a big golf course."
"I've been saying I want a hot player," the captain added. "I felt all along, these two weeks [Barclays and Deutsche Bank] would identify that guy. Someone is going to play their way onto the team."
Will it be Watney?
"He did what he had to do, so good for him," Snedeker said. It was a polite thing to say, but he didn't seem particularly thrilled about it. Snedeker knows that in the zero-sum game of captain's picks, when a player helps himself, he's hurting someone else.