U.S. Ryder Cup spots are still up for grabs at Medinah

U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Tom Lehman can't wait to see how the PGA Championship shapes his team. (Photo: Getty Images)
U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Tom Lehman can't wait to see how the PGA Championship shapes his team. (Photo: Getty Images)

Every other year, the PGA Championship takes on extra importance as the final chance to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team. And thanks to a change in the points system this time, the race for the places is more dynamic than ever.

MEDINAH, Ill. (AP) -- Some of the most clutch performances in the PGA Championship don't always happen in the final group or even the final hour. And the payoff isn't necessarily the Wanamaker Trophy.

Every other year at the season's final major, there is a tournament within a tournament, as a half-dozen players or more hang on every shot along the back nine while trying to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Brad Faxon closed with a 63 at Riviera in 1995 to finish 10th in the standings and secure the last spot. Two years later, Jeff Maggert shot 65 in the final round at Winged Foot to make the team. Chris DiMarco was the only player to break par among the final nine groups in 2004, getting into a playoff. He didn't win, but it was enough to put him on his first Ryder Cup team.

Every year, it's somebody. This year, it could be just about anybody.

A revamped system that quadruples the points in the year leading up to the matches has left U.S. Captain Tom Lehman little choice but to sit back and watch it unfold at this week's PGA Championship, the final qualifying event.

"I guess it is more volatile,'' said Scott Verplank, who knows this from experience.

Verplank started the season at No. 24 in the standings, moved into the top 10 after he tied for second in consecutive weeks at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and FBR Open in Phoenix, then tumbled to No. 22 after a shoulder injury held him back in May and June. He tied for fourth in the Buick Open last week and was back to No. 20 after The International ended on Sunday.

The possibilities seem endless.

It starts with John Rollins at No. 11, who needs to finish at least ninth in the PGA Championship to have a chance to crack the top 10. And because 675 points will be awarded to the winner, even someone like Bob Tway at No. 102 in the standings is mathematically in the hunt.

PGA Tour rookie J.B. Holmes, who won Phoenix in February and hasn't had a big finish since, would have to win the PGA Championship to make the team, along with everyone else below him down to No. 105.

The top 10 players in the standings qualify for the team, and Lehman will make two captain's picks next Monday morning after the PGA Championship.

Davis Love III was on the outside until he won the PGA Championship at Winged Foot in 1997, securing his spot on the team. He has played in every Ryder Cup since 1993, the longest streak of any American. But he is 15th in the standings, a precarious position.

"I don't want to be a pick,'' Love said. "I don't want to be 11th or 12th, put that pressure on the captain. I want to earn my way onto the team. Let's see if we can win one and jump way up in the rankings.''

Love made those comments before the U.S. Open. Then he missed the cut. He also missed the cut at the British Open.

The U.S. team is littered with newcomers. At the conclusion of The International, the top 10 included No. 8 J.J. Henry and No. 10 Brett Wetterich, both of whom never had won on the PGA Tour until this year.

Another rookie might be No. 7 Vaughn Taylor, whose only two victories were at the Reno-Tahoe Open, a tournament held the same week as the World Golf Championship at Firestone. If he makes the team, it will be his first time competing in match play.

Missing are veterans such as Love, Verplank, Fred Couples and Stewart Cink, some of them consumed by the Ryder Cup points.

"Every time I see Tom Lehman, I start looking at the list of points and trying to make a top 10, and I'm turning what I usually make -- a fifth or eighth or 10th -- into 17th and 25th, just because I'm thinking about it,'' Love said.

Lehman is well aware of this.

He has been holding informal meetings and cookouts with prospective players over the last few years, trying to motivate them to play their best and remind them that making the team is only half the battle.

The real measure is on Sept. 22 at The K Club in Ireland, and a chance to bring home the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1999.

"There's no question, the Ryder Cup is on everybody's mind,'' Lehman said. "The players who are trying to make our team are extremely motivated, almost to the point that they try too hard.''

One of those would be No. 14 Lucas Glover, who was so uptight about the Ryder Cup that he wouldn't even mention it by name earlier this year. Even last week going into the final round of the Buick Open -- he was in the final group with Tiger Woods, shot 72 and tied for 11th -- Glover did his best to play down the Ryder Cup.

"I've been thinking too much about that thing in September we all know about,'' Glover said.

Despite so many players who are relatively unknown and in position to make the team, Lehman isn't worried. This new points system is the essence of "What have you done for me lately?'' And that might not be a bad thing.

Catching the most grief was John Rollins, who wasn't eligible for the British Open. He won the B.C. Open that week, earning more points (375) for winning against a weak field than Chris DiMarco earned (360) for finishing second to Woods at the British Open.

That bumped Rollins up to No. 10, although Taylor bumped him out two weeks later.

"The whole purpose of this points system is you want guys who ... know what it's worth and they can step up and make the putt,'' Lehman said. "Does he deserve as many points as DiMarco? You can debate that all you want. All I know is John Rollins got the job done when he had to, and that's a good thing.''

Europe handed the United States its worst loss ever last time, 18 1/2 to 9 1/2, at Oakland Hills. That U.S. team featured seven players who did not win a PGA Tour event going into the Ryder Cup.

Of the top 10 players on this team going into the PGA Championship, seven already have won this year.

And while Wetterich is considered by some to be a one-hit wonder for his victory at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, he also tied for sixth in Houston, tied for fourth in New Orleans and tied for second in the Memorial.

Somewhere along the way, he hit the shots or made the putts that were required.

That's what Lehman will be looking for at the PGA Championship, the only tournament where more than one player will feel like he won.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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