SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Steve DiMeglio was on hand to witness a vintage performance from Tiger Woods at the Open Championship. Even though he didn’t win, is it safe to say Tiger is back?
AKRON, Ohio — Commence the bubble watch.
While the Ryder Cup is still an agonizingly two months away, it’s never too soon to try to get inside U.S. captain Jim Furyk’s brain as his 12-man squad comes into focus.
Especially after seeing the recent play of Tiger Woods, who 15 months ago had spinal fusion surgery, but now looks all but certain to be wearing the red, white and blue again after his strong play two weeks ago in the British Open.
Yes, Tiger will be wearing the U.S. stripes no matter what, seeing as he is an assistant captain, but he should pull double duty when the team travels over the pond to Le Golf National in Paris in September.
As it stands, only Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Captain America, Patrick Reed, are locks to be on the team, for they have clinched three of the eight automatic qualifying spots. And the next three in the standings are virtual locks to make it — Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth.
That leaves two automatic spots to be determined starting with this week’s World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone and next week’s PGA Championship at Bellerive, the cutoff point for the top 8.
“My thought process on the team really hasn’t changed,” Furyk said last week. “I really need to see what we have with our top eight.”
From there, Furyk has four events to watch before finalizing his team with four captain’s picks. He will consult his assistants and the eight players on the team before selecting three picks following the Dell Technologies Championship, the second of four FedExCup playoff events. He’ll make his final selection after the BMW Championship the following week.
Furyk said he’ll be thinking about pairings, players who will fit the course and team room and the current form of the player. Experience playing in the Ryder Cup will factor in, for the biennial bout with Europe is a different beast.
Thus, fierce competition for the remaining six slots begins in earnest Thursday at Firestone. Make that for five spots. OK, make that for four spots.
Woods is on the team. So, too, is Phil Mickelson.
After starting the year ranked 656th in the world, Tiger is now 50th and coming off his best performance of the year. He took the outright lead in the final round of the British Open before finishing in a tie for sixth, which moved him to 20th in the Ryder Cup standings.
After tempering his expectations earlier this year — he basically hadn’t played for two years and he did have a fused back — Woods is back to expecting to win. He has six top-6 results in 12 starts this year and is back to being the Tiger of old a lot more than being an old Tiger. And what better place to snap his five-year winless streak than at Firestone, where he has won a record eight times?
His presence in the team room, with his wise words to the younger set who have big ears, can’t be overstated. He’d have to win this week and next to make the automatic eight, but he’ll make the team as a pick.
The same is true of Mickelson, a giant in the team room and a solid player on the course. At 10th in the standings, he could still make the automatic eight but his recent form hasn’t been up to snuff, with just one top-10 since March.
Doesn’t matter. He hasn’t missed a U.S. team event since 1993, he has won this year, and he won’t lose focus in Paris. He’ll be on the team either way.
Rickie Fowler seems likely to be one of the eight qualifiers, so he takes up one of the four remaining spots. He’s seventh in the standings, has Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup experience and has played well all season.
The eighth and final qualifying spot currently belongs to Players champion and former U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson, who would be a good fit with Bubba in partners play. But Simpson is just 40 points ahead of Memorial winner Bryson DeChambeau, who has seven top-10s this year.
Also within striking distance of the automatic eight are Xander Schauffele, who tied for second in the British Open, and Tony Finau, who has top-10s in all three majors this year. So, too, is Matt Kuchar, who just tied for ninth in the British Open, has an abundance of U.S. team experience, and can pair with just about anybody on the squad.
Kevin Kisner, Brian Harman and Zach Johnson are within striking range, too.
It’s a big bubble watch. Get the popcorn.