Five years ago, Billy Horschel got on what became a lucrative roll at the end of the PGA Tour season. He won the BMW Championship and Tour Championship in back-to-back weeks to capture the FedEx Cup title. Two weeks later, the US Ryder Cup team faced off against Europe without Horschel, however, because Tom Watson’s four captain’s picks had been announced after the second playoff event … right before Horschel’s tear. The picking schedule was adjusted for 2016, with one selection saved for after the Tour Championship to ensure a hot player didn’t get left off the squad.
That exact scenario is shaping up this year. Brendon Todd held off Vaughn Taylor, Carlos Ortiz and Adam Long on Monday morning to win the Mayakoba Golf Classic, Todd’s second straight victory after capturing the Bermuda Championship two weeks ago. Unfortunately for Todd, whose struggles with his swing saw him drop outside the top 2,000 in the Official World Golf Ranking last year before this dramatic resurgence, there is no “Horschel pick” available to Presidents Cup captains. Tiger Woods already announced his four picks – Tony Finau, Gary Woodland, Patrick Reed and himself.
The good news for Todd – and a few other players whom we’ll discuss in a second – is that an extra spot might open up.
Brooks Koepka appears to be a question mark after withdrawing from last month’s CJ Cup with a knee injury, an extra concerning development because it was to the same knee that required a stem-cell injection after the Tour Championship in August. Tiger Woods said prior to the Zozo Championship that he was confident Dustin Johnson’s knee would be good to go by December 12, but didn’t know whether Koepka would be able to play. With each passing day that Koepka doesn’t announce his intentions to make the trip to Australia, the uncertainty of him playing in the event grows.
If Koepka does indeed pull out, Woods would have another difficult decision on his hands. Who do you take to replace Koepka? With just one official PGA Tour event (this week’s RSM Classic) left between now and Royal Melbourne, let’s take a look at the realistic candidates for a potential fifth captain’s pick.
Todd would be the ultimate hot-hand selection, considering he’d done basically nothing for three years before winning in back-to-back tour starts. The 34-year-old had missed 37 of 40 cuts at one point extending into last year and considered quitting the game entirely. Now he’s the FedEx Cup leader, back in the world top 100 and into next year’s Masters.
While Todd’s recent play has been nothing short of fantastic – he’s 44-under par in his past eight rounds – his struggles create their own set of mitigating factors that harm his candidacy. He has no Team USA experience and hasn’t rubbed shoulders too many times with most of this year’s squad. Additionally, both of his wins came in fall events against weaker-than-usual PGA Tour fields. There were no top-50 players in the field in Bermuda, which was played the same week as the WGC-HSBC Champions, and just seven top-50 guys in Mexico.
It boils down to this: Is Woods willing to trust a tour pro who was ranked 522nd three weeks ago over established and experienced guys? The gut says no, but Todd gets yet another chance to impress when he tees it up at the RSM Classic. A three-peat winner would virtually impossible to leave home, and a top-five would force Woods to seriously consider him.
Woods more-or-less confirmed that Fowler was the “first guy out” on the initial four picks when he discussed how difficult it was to tell Rickie he was not on the team earlier this month. And while Fowler is four years younger than Todd, the five-time PGA Tour winner has worlds more experience in international events, having played on two Walker Cup teams, four Ryder Cup teams and two Presidents Cup teams. He’s been a fixture in US team rooms and is the ultimate nice guy, meaning he could pair with just about anybody. And his putting prowess is always a major asset in match-play formats.
The problem with Fowler is that he hasn’t played much good golf recently. Actually, he hasn’t played much golf at all recently; he married Allison Stokke shortly after the Tour Championship then came down with a bacterial infection towards the tail end of his honeymoon. Consequently – and, interestingly, right after Woods passed him over – he withdrew from Mayakoba, which was to be his first start since East Lake. He’s now scheduled to play his first tournament in more than three months at the Hero World Challenge, which is the week before the Presidents Cup. Despite that long absence, Fowler’s pedigree and personality makes him one of the top two favourites to get Koepka’s spot … along with this next guy.
Another guy who likely felt snubbed by Woods is Kisner, who took a playful shot at the 15-time Major champion shortly after the initial four picks. Kisner would be less of a hot-hand play and taken more due to his stellar match-play record and fiery personality. He won the WGC-Dell Match Play in March and reached the final in the event a year earlier. He also went a solid 2-0-2 in his only Team USA appearance at the 2017 Presidents Cup. Kiz is the ultimate gamer, the type of guy who relishes head-to-head competition and isn’t the least bit intimidated by anybody, and he also hits a bunch of fairways, which keeps pressure on opponents in match play.
So, why didn’t Kisner get one of the first four picks? He hasn’t done much since winning the match play, posting just two top-10s in 17 starts since (both were in smaller-field FedEx Cup playoff events). His first three starts of the 2019-’20 season have resulted in a T-66 out of 78, a T-28 and a T-76.
If last year’s Ryder Cup taught us anything, it’s to pay less attention to recent form and more attention to a player’s match-play acumen and his team-room juice. Should Woods agree with that mantra, Kiz is as good a bet as anyone to take Brooks’ place.
Like Kisner, Na is a gritty competitor who overcomes major distance shortcomings. Like Kisner, he’s a terrific putter. Unlike Kisner, he’s enjoyed some recent success, winning this fall in Las Vegas, which at the time was his third victory in 31 starts. Na also has a personal relationship with Woods, and he’d be something of a feel-good pick – a 36-year-old who battled inner demons making his first Team USA appearance is a story anyone can get behind.
Na’s issue is that his ball-striking can get very spotty; despite winning twice in 2018-’19, he finished the year 159th in strokes gained/off the tee and 126th in strokes gained/approaching the green. As such, he might have the lowest floor of any potential pick should his swing be the slightest bit off. The walk-in putts don’t hit quite the same when they’re for par.
Despite his prolonged slump, there was some belief Woods would pick Spieth given his Major-championship pedigree and the fact that he’s still an elite putter. The pick also would have sent a positive message to Spieth that he’s still a core member of US teams going forward. It wasn’t to be, though, as the recent on-course struggles proved too much to ignore.
Spieth has shown some life in recent months, picking up top-10s at The Northern Trust in August and the CJ Cup in October, but his last two starts have been a T-66 out of 78 at the Zozo Championship and a T-43 out of 78 at the WGC-HSBC Champions event. That’s not exactly what Woods is looking for, even if he did do Spieth a solid by giving him a spot in the Hero World Challenge.
Mickelson’s streak of 24-straight Team USA appearances seemed destined to end when Mickelson publicly told Woods not to pick him. Woods complied … and then another spot possibly opened up. Still, if we take Mickelson for his word (and we have no reason not to), he truly believes any of the other candidates would be a better pick. Given Lefty’s recent struggles and the simple fact that he does not think he deserves to be on the team, you have to think there’s basically no chance he plays under any realistic circumstance.