Ryder Cup: The race to the Final 4

Golfweek contributor

NORTON, Mass. – On the eve of U.S. Ryder Cup picks, the list of contenders for the remaining four spots was just as murky as when the week started – one locked and three spots up for grabs. Captain Paul Azinger will have a difficult decision before his selection is announced in New York on Tuesday.

Coming into the Deutsche Bank Championship, Steve Stricker was ninth on the Ryder Cup points list followed by Woody Austin at 10th, D.J. Trahan in 11th, Hunter Mahan in 12th, Brandt Snedeker in 13th, Rocco Mediate in 14th, Zach Johnson in 15th and J.B Holmes in 16th, with Kevin Sutherland in 19th and Kevin Streelman in 50th. Both Sutherland and Streelman entered the mix when they played well last week at The Barclays and moved up significantly.

Most believe that Steve Stricker is a lock for the team. He is 10th in the world rankings and the fourth-highest ranked active American. He finished T-19 at The Barclays and T-13 at the Deutsche Bank Championship.

“I haven’t heard from Paul at all,” Stricker said after his final-round 68. “I don’t know what he’s thinking. Hopefully I get a call tonight or early tomorrow morning. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Woody Austin was considered to be a pick after his magnificent performance in the President’s Cup, but no wins in 2008 and recent missed cuts at the PGA Championship and The Barclays, make Austin a long shot. His consecutive 66s in the middle of the Deutsche Bank made Austin a guy to look at, but his final-round 75 may have sunk any chances Austin had of making the team.

“I wore my putter out the last two days to make the cut,” Austin said of his final round that included 35 putts. “Today it completely took the day off.”

But Austin still held out hope that Azinger would look his way.

“I’m not playing that poorly,” Austin said. “I just can’t get the ball in the hole most of the time. And the other two days when I shot 66, the ball went in the hole. Today, the ball didn’t go in the hole, so I didn’t score very good.”

Trahan went a long way to solidify his position on his first Ryder Cup team when he entered the final round at 10 under, but a final-round 80 could make it hard for Azinger to make Trahan a pick.

A distraught Trahan hoped that one round would not make the difference. He was, after all, 11th on the list and had a win in 2008, one of the prerequisites according to Azinger.

“It’s unfortunate… obviously it’s going to weigh on his decision some,” A shocked Trahan said while clearning out his locker. “I mean, I wasn’t thinking about anything but playing golf today. I don’t know, I honestly have never had more bad breaks, had more bad things happen to me and just literally felt more lost on a golf course in my life than I did today.”

Mahan had been in the mix since the first weeks of the points list. But inconsistency had plagued him down the stretch. Two missed cuts at Colonial, T-18 at the U.S. Open, T-2 at Travelers and T-12 at AT&T National followed Memorial. But then Mahan missed the cut at the British Open, finished T-10 at Bridgestone and missed the cut at the PGA Championship.
Mahan almost missed the cut this week, but a 8-under-par finish over the final 10 holes in Saturday’s second round gave him an opportunity to finish T-15 with a 69 in the final round.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” Mahan said of Azinger. “I haven’t seen him, I haven’t heard from him. I guess they’re just trying to keep it pretty much under wraps, I think. I don’t think anybody has a clue.”

Snedeker has had one top 10 since his T-3 at the Masters, a T-9 at the U.S. Open. Unfortunately for Snedeker, after two good majors he missed three consecutive cuts, including the British Open. Since then his best finish is T-24 at the PGA. He finished T-27 at Deutsche Bank.

“I’m not really too worried about it,” Snedeker said. “I hadn’t really done a whole lot to impress Captain Azinger the last five weeks so I’m not really expecting it. Hopefully my record holds up. The last two years I’ve played some pretty good golf.”

Mediate was the darling of the majors this year when he lost in a playoff to Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines at the U.S. Open and then finished T-19 at the British Open, but since his success across the pond Mediate has not finished higher that 52nd and missed the cut last week at The Barclays. His T-69 this week ended with a final-round 74, not much of a statement to Captain Azinger.

“I haven’t talked to Paul, so I don’t know,” Mediate said of his good friend. “I had a couple of indifferent weeks, but made like 12 of 13 cuts since the Memorial. So I’ve played solid, then a couple weeks of ‘blah,’ which is human.”

Johnson was always a long shot. He had one top 10, at the WGC-CA Championships at Doral in March. Since then he played in 14 events with his best finish a T-16 at WGC-Bridgestone and five missed cuts, including The Barclays, which did not allow him to advance to this weeks Deutsche Bank Championship.

With a win under his belt early in 2008 at the FBR Open, Holmes was always part of the mix. His Kentucky lineage – he was born and raised in Campbellsville – put him on the Ryder Cup map, but his length off the tee made him extremely interesting to Captain Azinger.

Holmes showed some flashes of brilliance at the PGA Championship, leading through 36 holes before finishing a disappointing 29th with a final-round 81. His missed cut at this week’s Deutsche Bank makes his selection a little more precarious, but his 24th at The Barclays may offset his miscue in Boston.

“I feel like I’ve played well enough this year to at least be considered,” Holmes said after missing his first cut since the British Open. “I like the match-play format. I think my game excels in that format. It’s on a golf course that I know a lot about, it’s in my home state. I’ve won this year. I feel like I deserve at least to be looked at. Hopefully I’ll get on the team, and that’s just totally up to him. He’s got the free reign right now.”

Both Sutherland and Streelman needed to do better than T-50, where they both finished.

“I feel like if I played well this week I would give Paul something to think about,” Sutherland said after his final-round 73. “I don’t think I showed him a thing unfortunately, I wish I would have played a little better.”

A couple of names that may garner some consideration come from deep in the points list. Scott Verplank is an old hand at Ryder Cups, having played in two of them. He has a record of 4-1-0.

“I don’t even know if he has my phone number,” Verplank said. “I have no idea, I may not even be in consideration, which I would understand or I might be right there at the top of the list, which I could understand. He hasn’t made any indication to me, which way he is going.”

Another long shot is Steve Flesch. If picked, Flesch could be the third member from Kentucky. Finishing T-15 this week didn’t hurt his chances, but a missed cut last week may have. Flesch had two solid major appearances with a T-5 at the Masters and sixth at the PGA Championship just a month ago. The left-hander may be just what the doctor ordered, if you are looking for a hot golfer.

“I played good, I’m a good, solid player, but to think that I’m high on his list, no,” Flesch said of being a Captain’s pick. “But you never know. Who knows? I mean, with four picks, who knows what direction Paul is going to go.”

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