The announcement by U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk came six months ago, and it was hardly blockbuster news.
To no one’s surprise, Furyk tabbed Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker as his assistant captains for September’s match against Europe next month outside Paris.
The jobs are not ceremonial. The vice captains serve as team strategists, confidants and motivators. Even without being able to play two years ago because of back problems, Woods was said to be an inspirational force in the U.S. team room in the Americans’ 17-11 victory at Hazeltine.
At the time of Furyk’s choices in February, it looked as if Woods would be resigned to a similar role this time — golf-cart bound, a walkie-talkie replacing a club in his hand.
Barring an injury, Woods will be standing shoulder to shoulder with his teammates when they play the national anthem during the opening ceremonies at Le Golf National.
It’s not official, and Furyk would not provide many hints about his four captain’s picks when he held a news conference Monday morning at Bellerive Country Club. But after Woods finished second to Brooks Koepka in the PGA Championship on Sunday, his inclusion will be the easiest decision Furyk has to make.
Furyk, who played through the weekend in the PGA, was as engrossed as anyone else in watching the Sunday drama unfold. Woods made eight birdies and shot 64, but never caught Koepka, who won his third major championship in 14 months.
“I was a little bummed and disappointed,” Furyk deadpanned. “I really wanted to see kind of how Tiger was playing, and I only got to see — I don’t know — like every shot he hit the rest of the day.
“It was great theater, really.”
The Ryder Cup doesn’t need Woods to make it one of the world’s most anticipated golf events. But Woods’ presence as a competitor takes it into the stratosphere and, remember, this is a business enterprise for the PGA of America. The biennial team competition is a bigger revenue driver than the PGA Championship.
The PGA has even begun to draw out the team selection process to lengthen the buildup. It used to be that the entire 12-man team was named the day following the PGA Championship.
This time eight automatic bids were determined Sunday, with three more captain’s picks announced Sept. 4, after the Dell Technologies Championship — the second tournament of the playoffs. The final choice comes Sept. 10 following the BMW Championship.
The eight players who have made the team are Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson.
Furyk was in a position Monday of having to quash much wild-card talk to focus on those eight. He couldn’t escape answering queries about Woods, of course.
It was noted for the captain that Woods vaulted himself from 20th in the Ryder Cup standings to 11th — three spots away from an automatic berth.
“I’m not sure the numbers are always that important when I look down the list,” Furyk said. “What is important is how well Tiger has played. Sixth place at the [British] Open championship, a second place in the PGA. His game — I think the word he used is ‘trending.’ His game is trending. So it’s great to see him playing well.”
Incredibly, it appeared not long ago that Woods’ season could be over in the first event or two of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs, which begin Aug. 23 at the Northern Trust in Paramus, N.J.
Woods now stands at 20th in the FedEx Cup standings, with the top 30 players making the season-finale Tour Championship. The postseason presents an interesting challenge for Woods. He has played in consecutive weeks only three times this year.
The first three playoff events are in consecutive weeks, but depending on Woods’ performances, he could sit one out — which is likely — and still be in the top 30 to reach the Tour Championship, scheduled for Sept. 20-23.
Furyk must now decide the skills and personalities he needs for the rest of the team.
As it is, 11-time participant Phil Mickelson is expected to be a lock — more for his popularity in the team room than his play this season. He doesn’t have a top-10 finish since May.
With two picks left, Furyk might look to the experience of Matt Kuchar, who is universally loved by his peers, and could mix him in with a Ryder Cup rookie in one of three rising stars — Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele and Tony Finau.
DeChambeau, 24, won the recent Memorial and has seven top-10 finishes this season. He was the last man outside the bubble for automatic qualifying. He’s fiery, but it would be interesting to see how his quirky personality would play in the locker room.
Schauffele, 24, is the reigning tour rookie of the year and has backed up his fine first season with strong finishes in big events this year — ties for second in the Players, sixth in the U.S. Open, second in the British Open.
Encouraging to Schauffele was Furyk’s comment that the Paris course is similar to the Players Championship course, TPC Sawgrass, and Schauffele was second there to Simpson.
Affable yet intense, Schauffele likely would be a great team guy, but is he still two years away from being seasoned enough for the Ryder Cup cauldron?
Finau, 28, is a player who battled years in the lower ranks before finding his footing in the last four seasons. He’s a bomber who can make a ton of birdies, as Furyk saw in playing with Finau in the PGA. Finau scorched Bellerive for 10 birdies in the second round.
“We have some big tournaments coming home,” Furyk said. “We get an opportunity to see some more guys play well. … The reason we put this system into place is to identify hot players, identify guys who are playing well right now who can help the team.